“I’m a simple man,” Roger Ailes (Russell Crowe) tells a crowd full of Republicans at a speech in Garrison, New York. It’s a speech that makes it clear just how unbridled his right-wing views are, and draws a line from his xenophobic, America-first rhetoric to the rise of Donald Trump. But it’s also a perfect summation of what makes The Loudest Voice, a series about the Fox News founder, both entertainingly timely and frustratingly shallow.
Showtime’s drama, which spans seven episodes, tells the rise and fall of Ailes, a man who not only became one of the most powerful figures in media history but also became one of the most prominent figures in conservative politics. Based on Gabriel Sherman’s unauthorised 2014 biography, it begins in 1996, when Ailes was fired from CNBC. Rallying, he instead turned to Rupert Murdoch to create a new 24-hour news network – something that he not only does, but does in half the 12-month launch window originally planned for the service.
It’s a compellingly quick ride through the corridors of journalistic past and present, delivered with class and polish by directors such as Boardwalk Empire and The Handmaid’s Tale veteran Kari Skogland and The Pacific and Game of Thrones alumnus Jeremy Podeswa. From cameras pointing at cameras to clocks ticking down to transmissions and people nervously watching screens, it’s a clinically composed world of reflections and lights, all mirrored by the TVs surrounding everyone – the kind of production that the words “prestige TV” were made for.
The cast relish the chance to take to that stage, and they’re led by a powerhouse turn from Russell Crowe. He’s unrecognisable as Roger Ailes, his hefty performance bulldozing past any initial distractions provided by his prosthetics; he’s convincingly cruel, constantly greasy and extremely accomplished when it comes to working a room. From the opening episode, which sees him demand editorial control, scold employees and woo old friends into his den, it’s a villainous turn that makes Roger an easy man to hate – and a fun one to watch.
He’s supported by an excellent Sienna Miller, who disappears into the part of his wife, Beth, even if that’s partly because (until she acquires a newspaper as a “project” to keep her busy) she doesn’t get as much airtime as her husband. Equally impressive is the always-brilliant Simon McBurney, who would steal the show as Rupert Murdoch if he weren’t so chameleonic in the part. Less camouflaged is Seth MacFarlane as key player Brian Lewis, although he plays his part with a commendably straight face. Most impressive, though, are perhaps Annabelle Wallis and Naomi Watts as Laurie Luhn and Gretchen Carlson, two women who endure Roger’s harassing behaviour, behaviour that would eventually lead to career-ending allegations against him.
They all grow and shift in their stances, as they orbit Ailes, many of them increasingly unsettled by his views and behaviour – Rupert Murdoch, notably, queries his right-wing views, although he is willing to overlook them simply because of the amount of money Ailes is making the company.
That media nous may not seem like much of a surprise in 2019, but it’s a vital insight into the way the news began to enter the modern age, as Ailes hit upon a bleak truth: that news doesn’t need to appeal to everyone, just a core demographic, and that opinions are more popular than facts. “People want to feel informed,” he declares, “not be informed.”
And so we see the rise of Fox News, as Ailes focuses on loud personalities over fact-checking reporters, on keeping in step – or out of step – with the White House administration, and on reinforcing the network’s identity as a patriotic news service. That tenacity and ruthlessness, played with smug guile by Crowe, steers Fox News through questionable decisions during the 2008 elections, 9/11 and more.
But while The Loudest Voice in the Room works beautifully on that level, it suffers on a human one. Because no matter how good Crowe is, the series is lacking a depth and substance to Ailes: his professional prowess is expertly depicted, but his motivations remain something of a mystery. That inscrutability may be the point, but it’s an obstacle to enjoying the show to the full. While co-creator Tom McCarthy proved his mastery of minute details with the Oscar-winning Spotlight, The Loudest Voice in the Room doesn’t dial down the volume enough to hear the smaller, human touches. Roger Ailes tells us he’s a simple man, and that’s the problem.
The Loudest Voice premieres at 9pm on Sky Atlantic, with episodes airing weekly and the full box set available on-demand. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it live and on-demand legally on NOW TV, for £7.99 a month (until 9th October 2019, when the price rises to £8.99), with no contract and a 7-day free trial.