'The Loudest Voice': TV Review
Dominated by Russell Crowe's makeup-heavy performance as Roger Ailes, Showtime's seven-part miniseries about the late Fox News exec is detailed without being truly insightful.
Somewhere along the way, left-leaning storytellers decided that the most potent weapon at their disposal in the culture wars was latex.
Whether it's burying Ed Harris in wrinkles as John McCain or Christian Bale in prosthetics and his own Method corpulence as Dick Cheney, a cottage industry has risen up of preach-to-the-choir productions determined to use wigs and augmented jowls to illustrate for liberal audiences how conservative ideology is formed. It's a good way to generate awards nominations and easy cheers from the peanut gallery, but apparently a questionable way to generate meaningful perspective.
Showtime's new limited series The Loudest Voice, based on the 2014 book The Loudest Voice in the Room and magazine reporting by Gabriel Sherman, takes advantage of its length — seven episodes, of which I've seen four — to come across as extremely detailed and well-researched, at least as pertains to its central figure, the late Fox News impresario Roger Ailes (Russell Crowe). Whether the miniseries is "fair" is beside the point because it's absolutely balanced. The Loudest Voice is half portrait of a brilliant man who translated shouting and manipulation into a media empire and a mainstream political movement, half origin story for a serial-harassing monster prone to racism, misogyny and sexual and psychological enslavement.
Through it all, one thing remains consistent: Crowe is wearing a lot of latex and fighting against it admirably to give a very good performance that will doubtlessly in some circles be hailed as great, because it's being given by a great actor in Adrien Morot's great makeup.
The premiere, directed by Kari Skogland and adapted by Tom McCarthy (Spotlight) and Alex Metcalf, begins in 2017 with Ailes' death, ghoulishly reassuring. The real story goes back to 1995 when Ailes is forced out at NBC and nefariously renegotiates his exit package so that his non-compete clause only prevents him from going to existing news networks. Cackling, as he will continue to do over the whole series, at the ignorance of the liberal elite, Ailes immediately joins forces with Rupert Murdoch (Simon McBurney) and launches the entity that will be known as Fox News.
When Ailes isn't offering platitudes like "People don't want to be informed, they want to feel informed," he's leering over potential on-air talent and saying things like "Who ordered the pussy masala?" about a female reporter who may or may not be Indian. In Ailes' benign moments, Crowe makes him into a lumbering, pontificating giant sloth, and in Ailes' worse moments — and his treatment of women, especially Annabelle Wallis' Laurie Luhn, is skin-crawlingly repugnant — it's like watching a live-action Jabba the Hutt.
The series, in which each episode focuses on the events of a single year, has three modes, of differing qualities. When it's specific and detailed, capturing the depth of Sherman's reporting, it's perceptive and entertaining. These are the scenes where we watch Ailes shape the Fox News brand on a granular level, whether it is positioning the network's street-level studio or contriving the perfect show to accentuate Sean Hannity's (Patch Darragh) diamond-in-the-rough bluster or responding in the visceral immediacy of 9/11 with the perspective and message that would pivot the network to the top.
Less successful are the grandstanding beats where Ailes walks into a situation controlled by some thinly written snowflake cuck and makes a big speech dominated by Fox News talking points and then everybody claps at his insight and magnetism. Those are clunky and on-the-nose. Like most of the series, these moments are designed to make the audience go, "Ha! I knew Fox News was that cynical!," which can be satisfying without being insightful.
Finally, there are the scenes accentuating Ailes' grotesqueness. They're tawdry — not inappropriately so given the depicted behavior — and shot like something from a different series, but if you've ever wanted to see Crowe's latex-encased O-face, The Loudest Voice has you covered.
The title of the miniseries and Sherman's book applies to both Ailes' vision for Fox News and for Ailes himself. It works insofar as all credit for everything can be filtered through one man, and Crowe's performance is nothing if not outsized. There's hardly room for any supporting performances to register, much less find nuance.
If Crowe is ever-visible underneath the latex, Sienna Miller vanishes entirely under her Beth Ailes makeup. I don't think The Loudest Voice has any meaningful understanding of Beth, but Miller absorbs that ambiguity fully. Seth MacFarlane brings glib swagger and hollow regret to his role as Ailes henchman Brian Lewis, but what causes Lewis to be an eager yes-man one second and nagged by regret the next is unclear. Josh Stamberg makes for a meekly acquiescent Bill Shine, Josh McDermitt an amusingly cartoonish Glenn Beck and Emory Cohen a nascently regretful Joe Lindsley.
Gretchen Carlson is a quintessentially Naomi Watts character — archetypal blonde on the surface, dangerous cracks forming underneath — and I look forward to seeing more from her after only brief scenes in the third and fourth episodes. Does Carlson become the series' "hero"? Or will it be Luhn, whom Wallis plays with committed empathy for her victimization, even if the show offers no real traces of backstory, motivation or interiority?
There are many voices in this room. Most of the time, only Ailes' voice — not that Crowe is making any effort to actually sound like Ailes — is audible. In this respect, The Loudest Voice is a lot like HBO's All the Way, in which the prosthetic-entombed central performance of Bryan Cranston as Lyndon B. Johnson, however good, created a black hole that made an ensemble feel like a one-man show. I almost can't wait to see which of the real-life figures from the miniseries will come out and declare that they were misrepresented and which will opt for silence under the impression that "spineless stooge" is a better treatment than "active conspirator."
Woodrow Wilson famously referred to The Birth of a Nation as "history writ with lightning," a quote that speaks simultaneously to the movie's immediacy and Wilson's virulent racism. History writ with latex is a flabbier, more embalmed thing, and I can't help but feel like we're going to one day look back at the Vices and Loudest Voices of the world and wonder why, in this crucial moment, our storytelling lacked for lightning.
Cast: Russell Crowe, Sienna Miller, Naomi Watts, Seth MacFarlane, Annabelle Wallis, Simon McBurney, Aleksa Palladino, Josh Stamberg, Emory Cohen, Patch Darragh, Josh McDermitt, Barry Watson
Developed by: Tom McCarthy and Alex Metcalf from the book The Loudest Voice in the Room and reporting by Gabriel Sherman
Premieres: Sunday, June 30, 10 p.m. ET/PT (Showtime)