Our country is in a state of divide and turmoil. As we gear up for a new election cycle with 2020 on the horizon, politics are sure to be on everyone’s mind. This means we’ll be inundated with movies or TV shows that try and make sense of our current political climate. Showtime’s latest miniseries, “The Loudest Voice,” is just one of two projects in the coming year to spotlight FOX News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes, who resigned in 2016 amidst allegations of sexual harassment. For our sake, let’s hope the next Ailes project is better than “The Loudest Voice.”
The seven episode miniseries starts with the founding of FOX News in 1996. Ailes (Russell Crowe) had just resigned from NBC amidst rumblings of misconduct. Still, he negotiates a more lenient non-compete clause in his severance package that allows him to form a whole new network. This leads him into the hands of Rupert Murdoch (Simon McBurney), who gives Ailes the challenge and room to create the network.
The show introduces us to Ailes as a cunning, strategic entrepreneur. In some respects, director Kari Skogland frames Ailes more like “The Social Network” disrupter Mark Zuckerberg. Here in lies the problem. The premise of the miniseries is to show how the rise of Fox News led to our current political climate. Yet, the show lacks a strong visual or storytelling point of view that contextualizes the actions we are seeing. It presents Roger Ailes’ rise in a very clinical, bland fashion. Throughout the season, we are only treated to the views of the people within Fox News. Without a strong control of tone or perspective, the show lacks the bite to really examine Fox News and its leadership.
As time moves on, Murdoch moves from benefactor to possible adversary. After 9/11, Ailes dials up anti-Muslim rhetoric which contributes to the massive success and growth of the network. Following the 2008 election that puts Barack Obama in the White House, Ailes suspects Murdoch leans more towards the President than Ailes’ own political interest.
Russell Crowe is expectedly good. However, that’s all he is. His performance is exactly what you expect it to be. Crowe packs on pounds, sports a bald look and nails the surface of Roger Ailes. He barks commands, hurls insults and grabs women to his heart’s content. Yet, what good is nailing the motions and speech patterns of someone if you aren’t going to actually give us any insight into who they are? After four episodes, I’ve learned very little about what makes Roger Ailes tick. All I’ve seen is bad behavior with very little motivation. A trip to Ailes’ small hometown tries to shine some light on Roger’s tough as nails upbringing. Even still, everything just feels simple and expected.
No one else gets much to do. Sienna Miller dons on heavy prosthetics to play Roger’s wife Elizabeth Ailes. Yet, the only character beats the show deems to give her involves Elizabeth taking over a local paper. The show spends a considerable amount of time on this storyline that consistently feels out of a wholly different series. As Roger’s mistress Laurie Luhn, Annabelle Wallis only exists in the narrative to look sad as she pops pills and engages in this corrupt sexual affair. The show never bothers to make Laurie a character or exist outside of being Roger’s sexual object. Lastly, Seth MacFarlane stands out as Ailes’ henchman Brian Lewis only because of stunt casting. His role only serves to be a reaction shot that reminds audiences that someone from “Family Guy” is involved in the show.
Much has been made of the casting of Naomi Watts as Gretchen Carlson. To say the show under-utilizes her is an understatement. Watts clocks in roughly five minutes of screen time over the show’s first four hours. With those moments, she gives us very little to look forward to. As a whole, the show has very little interest in giving any character anything to do outside of share the stage with Russell Crowe.
At the end of the day, the show seems more concerned with telling us what happened, rather than why it happened. It jumps from 1995 to 2001 to 2008 all in the span of three episodes. Each new episode, consequently, feels more akin to a procedural that takes place in different time periods. The central question with the second episode, which takes place around 9/11, asks “how will Fox News cover 9/11.” Jump to the third episode. All it asks is “how will Fox News cover the 2008 election?” By the fourth episode, we finally see Ailes go full force in making Fox News a powerful, biased “fake news” machine. Unfortunately, there are so many holes in terms of plot and character, that none of it feels satisfying or earned.
One of the questions that surrounded “Vice,” a film I also disliked but for different reasons, was what good comes from making grand biopics of these horrible men? Why indulge their larger than life delusions? Is it worth it to “take them down a peg” or expose their evils? Both “Vice” and “The Loudest Voice” fail to justify their existence. Even with all of the righteous sound and fury of Adam McKay’s mid-film credits or Shakespeare detours, it was still a movie that was obsessed with exalting Dick Cheney as this one of a kind strategist. “The Loudest Voice” similarly pumps Roger Ailes’ ego, but fails to critique, villify or take him down. Perhaps future episodes get more bite. However, the show starts off rather toothless.
“The Loudest Voice” feels like “Vice” without any of its flourishes, panache or even point of view. At least “Vice” constantly reminded its audience that it was a warrior for the left supposedly shining a light at the faults of the Republican party. “The Loudest Voice” lacks the point of view to even discernibly shame its subjects. It presents the events with such a cold remove that, especially in early episodes, one might think, “Is this series asking us to root for Fox News?” “The Loudest Voice” might be loud, but it doesn’t know what it’s saying.