clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

‘The Loudest Voice’ Isn’t Subtle, but How Could It Be?

Showtime’s Russell Crowe–led miniseries on the former Fox News mastermind Roger Ailes is the latest in a recent string of projects that abandon all nuance and any attempts at empathy

Showtime/Ringer illustration

We do not live in subtle times. The President of the United States is currently in a feud with a soccer player. A man credibly accused of sexually preying on minors came dangerously close to higher office in Alabama, and may do so again. A sitting senator casually joked about dictatorship while the national media was still debating the semantics of the term “concentration camp.” It’s no wonder most satire can’t keep up.

Much of this lack of subtlety can be traced directly to Roger Ailes, the Fox News mastermind and subject of the Showtime miniseries The Loudest Voice, premiering this Sunday. The contours of Ailes’s biography are those of a cartoon villain, an impression The Loudest Voice does little to challenge. In his professional life, Ailes worked to erode the distinction between news and entertainment, injecting dangerous conspiracy theories into political discourse and enabling our current reality-show presidency from its inception. In his personal life, Ailes was the subject of a pre-#MeToo sexual harassment scandal, headlined by on-air personalities like Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly but backed by scores of women alleging decades of abuse. As punishment, Ailes received a $40 million exit package from Fox; he died less than a year later.

A running joke on social media is that American politics is a scripted television show whose writers have grown bored, lazy, or desperate. Based on the 2014 book by Gabriel Sherman, The Loudest Voice is the latest in a series of works that looks to dramatize this late-stage soap opera’s cast of villains, who would seem reductive and two-dimensional if they weren’t ripped from the headlines. Last year, HBO’s Succession fictionalized the family dynamic of Ailes’s longtime employers, the Murdochs; months later, executive producer and pilot director Adam McKay unveiled Vice, his attempt to shed light on Dick Cheney’s shadowy reign.

Succession and Vice are tied to each other by their creative teams, and to The Loudest Voice by their subject matter and style. Succession takes a more personal approach to its cloistered elites, focusing on the cyclical relationship between the Roy family’s toxicity and the toxic sludge they dump into the world’s information supply. The Roys’ ATN channel, an openly conservative operation that targets a leftist presidential candidate who happens to employ its owner’s daughter, is nonetheless a clear proxy for Fox News. Vice, meanwhile, shares a template with The Loudest Voice while also acting as its inverse. Both projects are headlined by middle-aged movie stars delivering a textbook, awards-friendly transformation, their commitment underscored by weight gain, accent work, and extensive prosthetics; here, Russell Crowe assumes the mantle from Christian Bale. The two men’s characters even have a cameo in each other’s star vehicle: Vice is a political biography in which Ailes pops up as a helpful aide, and The Loudest Voice is a media history in which Cheney appears as a useful ally.

Yet for all their shared inspiration, these stories are distinguished as much by what they don’t try to capture as what they do. The standard biopic works to humanize, or at least empathize with, its protagonist; The Loudest Voice, like Vice and Succession before it, makes a spectacle out of its refusal to do any such thing. Under the guidance of showrunner Alex Metcalf, The Loudest Voice isn’t really an attempt to understand Ailes, or grasp the nuances of his psychology. The series is instead a pocket history of democracy in decline, as told through the rise of a primary instrument in said decline. The Loudest Voice wears its biases on its sleeve. Then again, so does the world Ailes worked so hard to create.

The antihero is, by now, a familiar figure in television and film. But Ailes, Cheney, and the Roys are something else: straight-up antagonists placed at the center of their stories, which makes it easier for their architects to focus all-out assaults on their character. Wall Street at least needed a naive up-and-comer to place the viewer in Gordon Gekko’s orbit. In 2019, we’ve outgrown the need for such devices. Each of The Loudest Voice’s seven episodes, four of which were shown to critics, documents a different year in Ailes’s half-century-long career. From the planning and launch of Fox in 1996 to the terrorist attacks of 2001 to the election of Barack Obama in 2008, some motifs emerge. In the most consistent, a colleague—sometimes an underling like brutish crony Bill Shine (Josh Stamberg), sometimes a supposed adult in the room like Rupert Murdoch (Simon McBurney)—draws a line in the sand Ailes just can’t cross while running a news network. Early on, it’s slanting an opinion show in favor of the in-house conservative; later, it’s allowing Glenn Beck to call Obama a racist on-air, then letting him off with a slap on the wrist. A straw man established, Crowe’s Ailes is then free to lay out his view of the world in response: “It’s all the same. News, talk shows, English fuckin’ bulldogs: it’s all the same”; “People don’t want to be informed. They want to feel informed”; “Lines are for suckers.”

Lest the audience be unsure how they’re supposed to feel about Ailes’s lenient attitude toward journalistic standards, The Loudest Voice intertwines the story of Fox with the story of Ailes’s iron grip over its employees, particularly its female ones. (Later this year, Jay Roach’s star-studded Fair and Balanced will focus exclusively on this aspect of Ailes’s tenure.) Like Harvey Weinstein, Ailes is shown to be an abusive authority figure in almost every respect, building a culture of fear by threatening suspected leakers and publicly upbraiding subordinates. But particular attention is paid to his diminishment of women like Laurie Luhn (Annabelle Wallis), who once described her 20 years with Ailes as “psychological torture.” This is the undiluted version of the misogyny that developed the archetype of the Fox News Blonde: a view of women as props to be posed and weaponized in the service of Ailes’s desires.

Such grotesquerie is amplified by flourishes that seem ripped directly from the McKay playbook. The premiere ends with a shot of the American flag built out of flickering TV sets, the third episode with an apocryphal scene where Ailes coins the phrase “Make America Great Again” in a speech to his hollowed-out Ohio hometown, years before Donald Trump would introduce it to the popular lexicon. (In reality, MAGA had been floating around as a cliché for years, and its first Trump-adjacent usage appears to be a Roger Stone tweet from 2011.) The Loudest Voice begins with a voice-over in which Ailes derisively talks down to an audience he assumes despises him, not unlike the fourth-wall break from the closing minutes of Vice. The soundtrack includes the Talking Heads’ “Television Man,” a choice so ostentatious and on-the-nose it would do Ailes proud.

At the time of their releases, Succession and Vice were met with similar, and similarly skeptical, lines of inquiry: How many times do we need to be reminded these people are awful before we get the gist? Why bother to build a narrative out of unvarnished opinion? Isn’t nuance necessary for good art? The Loudest Voice opens itself up to these same criticisms, and contains within it the same implicit defense. Neither the Murdochs, nor the Bush administration, nor Ailes and his protegés are people who put much stock in nuance. It’s only fitting their portrayals match their temperaments, and in turn, the tone of the zeitgeist they helped to put in place.

Earlier this year, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg praised CBS All Access procedural The Good Fight as “The Only TV Show That Gets Life Under Trump.” It’s true that The Good Fight nails the absurd, tragicomic feeling of being unable to distinguish fact from fiction, and unsure whether the effort is even worth it. But the show is also told from the perspective of besieged liberals—those having our new reality inflicted upon them, rather than devising it for their own selfish ends. The Loudest Voice has its own bleeding-heart priorities. (The miniseries was produced partly by Spotlight’s Tom McCarthy.) By at least nominally putting itself in the shoes of the opposition, though, the new wave of right-wing takedowns goes behind the scenes of an ongoing apocalypse. The other side is relentlessly angry and disinclined to sympathize with the enemy. As it turns out, two can play at that game.