The Loudest Voice is the first TV show I’ve ever watched in which I spent the majority of the running time wishing I could fast forward to the main character’s death.
The Showtime docuseries about Roger Ailes, one of the worst Americans who ever lived, wrapped up recently. It was adapted from The Loudest Voice in the Room, the 2014 book by journalist Gabriel Sherman. In September 2016, I tweeted that “someday there’s going to be a great, Spotlight-like movie in which @gabrielsherman is the hero.” The character based on Sherman only appears in the mini-series briefly, but the director of Spotlight, Tom McCarthy, is the executive producer of The Loudest Voice.
It’s one of those shows that wouldn’t work at all if it were fictional and not fact-based, because the lead character being that loathsome simply wouldn’t be believable. Indeed, the show is probably not binge-able, because spending this much time with such an awful protagonist is a whole lot of ask of audiences.
Fox in the Henhouse
Ailes, of course, founded Fox News, and ruled it as a personal fiefdom for its first 20 years, before he was forced out in a massive sexual harassment scandal, during the Republican Convention in the summer of 2016.
If there were a lifetime achievement award for evil, Ailes, who died in early 2017, would make a strong contender.In addition to creating the most powerful propaganda outlet in American history, sexually harassing numerous women, and behaving at all times like a paranoid racist crank, Ailes played a part in the elections of both Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. After he was fired from Fox, Ailes informally advised the Trump campaign on debate prep, although he died a few months into Trump’s presidency.
In the Showtime show, Russell Crowe plays Ailes as a gross, manipulative bully and predator.
In the Showtime show, Russell Crowe plays Ailes as a gross, manipulative bully and predator. When he’s not disparaging the looks of his female employees, or propositioning them, he’s directly ordering his employees to put false stuff on the air, including various conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama, and also spying on political and media opponents.
Crowe, wearing a fat suit and heavy prosthetics, doesn’t overact quite as much as he has in some other recent roles, while Sienna Miller is perhaps even more chilling as his wife Beth Tilson Ailes, who delivers ugly invective in a “friendly,” Midwestern lilt. Naomi Watts, despite looking nothing like her at all, plays the heroine of the piece, anchor Gretchen Carlson, whose lawsuit ultimately brought Ailes down.
The Road to Trump
The mini-series, which starts with the beginnings of Fox News in the mid-1990s and continues through the end of Ailes’ life, doubles as a history of the years before Donald Trump’s election, and not-so-subtly demonstrates how Fox News laid the groundwork for Trump’s rise.
So we see the Clinton impeachment, the 9/11 attacks, Iraq, the Obama presidency and eventually the rise of Trump. We even get into the episode when Trump began feuding with Fox during the 2016 primaries, which ended with Ailes and Fox throwing Megyn Kelly under the bus and backing Trump even more than before.
The Loudest Voice also revisits some key moments in Fox history; I particularly enjoyed its explanation for the origin of the network’s old, blatantly-rigged debate show Hannity & Colmes: We see Sean Hannity lose an argument to a liberal, and in order to ensure that never happens again, Ailes orders “get me another liberal.”
A first-rate documentary last year, Alexis Bloom’s Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes, told the same story; my personal favorite part was when a pair of crisis management consultants, hired by Ailes after the harassment allegations, delightfully turn on their own deceased client, who had refused to pay them. Who recommended the consultants? You guessed it, Donald Trump.
In 2016, Fox News was exposed as having operated a high-level sexual abuse coverup not unlike those of the Catholic Church and Penn State, with Ailes and star anchor Bill O’Reilly both losing their jobs following revelations of years and years of unchecked sexual harassment.
…the network is more powerful than ever before, standing foursquare behind Donald Trump and featuring several hosts who have abandoned the dog whistles of the past…
Three years later… Fox News has suffered no institutional damage, as it’s very clear that no one in its core audience cares about the rock-solid harassment allegations against its founder, its main star, or the president whom they strongly support. In fact, the network is more powerful than ever before, standing foursquare behind Donald Trump and featuring several hosts who have abandoned the dog whistles of the past in favor of pure, uncut white nationalism.
Roger Ailes vision of Fox has clearly outlived him, and if you can stomach that – and him – the Showtime series is an illuminating look at the rotten world he built.