Culture

Television

‘The Loudest Voice’: a nightmarish portrait of a monster

By Craig Mathieson
The sheer scale of Roger Ailes’s wrongs defies the medium of television

The Loudest Voice. Photograph courtesy of Stan.

At the beginning of The Loudest Voice, Roger Ailes (Russell Crowe), the founder and fervent voice of American cable channel Fox News, lies on the bathroom floor of his Palm Beach mansion. It is May 10, 2017, and the former political operative and disgraced broadcast executive has just fallen and suffered the subdural haematoma that will take his life eight days later. In the limited series’ lone moment of voiceover, the 77-year-old offers a dismissive summary of the words that are used to describe him: “right wing, paranoid, fat”.

Adapted from Gabriel Sherman’s 2014 book about Ailes and the Fox News empire he created, The Loudest Voice in the Room, and galvanised by Ailes’s headline-making fall from power in 2016 when a sexual-harassment lawsuit from one of his own presenters revealed a litany of similar offences, the seven episodes of this drama studiously adhere to this mocking prediction. It is a portrait of a television savant, a man who debased the political landscape of the country he professed to love, who is right wing, paranoid and fat. The show (streaming on Stan) refuses to step outside the boundaries of Sherman’s book and subsequent reporting, allowing for neither artistic shading nor contradictory perspective. It is determined to be, in a reflection of Fox News’s former motto, “fair and balanced”.

With a chronological structure that takes in key years from 1996, when Ailes founded Fox News for Rupert Murdoch (Simon McBurney), to two decades later, when he was ousted by the same man and his sons, The Loudest Voice applies brutal repetition to a familiar form. As Fox News grows successful, bypassing CNN and becoming a conservative pulpit, Ailes becomes more controlling, deluded and abusive. He abandons journalistic procedure, sexually harasses female staff and spouts extremist catchphrases. President Obama, he assures dinner guests, is actively building “a socialist police state”.

Ailes is so malignant and unchecked that the narrative is both fascinating and uncomfortable; his constant screen presence is pummelling. One Fox staffer, Laurie Luhn (Annabelle Wallis), spends years in a coercive sexual relationship with Ailes, until she has a mental breakdown and becomes a risk to be shunted aside. “Roger’s not here,” her therapist subsequently assures her. “You don’t know that,” a stricken Luhn replies, and it’s the same for the viewer: Roger’s always here.

If you have followed Ailes’s controversial career this is a reasonably comprehensive recap, and if you haven’t then this is the nightmarish greatest hits of a demagogue and serial sexual harasser. He has Murdoch’s third wife, Wendi Deng (Julee Cerda), investigated because he fears she’s using “mind control” on the tycoon, notes that ranting Fox News presenter Glenn Beck (Josh McDermitt) is “an armadillo with a hairpiece”, and videotapes Laurie Luhn during their hotel room meetings both for his viewing pleasure and blackmail potential. The question of how he built such a fiefdom is glossed over. Ailes demands autonomy and Rupert Murdoch – who, like every Australian character in this show, says “mate” a great deal – allows it because the profits are bountiful.

Such a narrow approach probably wouldn’t work as well as it does – Ailes’s downfall is deeply satisfying to watch – if it weren’t for Russell Crowe. The actor balances Ailes’s many traits, suggesting his intuitive understanding of television news as a tool of indoctrination, showing flashes of charm, and making his rage fiercely authoritative. When Crowe erupts as Ailes, the anger doesn’t come from mere annoyance or disagreement but from the sense that a righteous path is being challenged; by the end Ailes has a God complex bigger than the News Corp itself. Crowe never permits himself the safety catch of satire, no matter how loopy or repulsive Ailes may be.

The Loudest Voice uses a suite of writers (including Sherman and Spotlight writer/director Tom McCarthy) and directors (including Stephen Frears), so the defining voice here is Crowe’s performance. The camera stays close to him, noting how his bulk increasingly affects his walk but rarely finding a shooting style that elevates the static and mostly interior scenes set in Ailes’s office and home. But making the viewer a hostage to Ailes’s whims means that the profound impact of Fox News has to be communicated by brief edits of its increasingly biased broadcasts. The divisiveness of the network on a national level is never truly felt.

The impact of Ailes’s work is illuminated by those around him. His wife, Beth (Sienna Miller), is a true believer, patient zero of Ailes’s hysteria who takes paranoid pride in the survival bunker beneath the family home and sees every attack on her husband as a plot by the Clintons or George Soros. Her counterpoint in the latter episodes is Gretchen Carlson (Naomi Watts), the former Miss America and Fox News morning show co-host who endures Ailes’s inappropriate touching and advances, and then his attacks and demotion after he realises he’s been spurned. The plotting gives Carlson just enough time to show the stress of being targeted by Ailes, and the risk in fighting back when he had every department of Fox weaponised against dissent.

By the final episode, as the ground shifts beneath him – “You’re done, mate,” Lachlan Murdoch (Barry Watson) gleefully points out – Ailes presents like a plantation owner in the Antebellum south: braces, a cane, liver spots and barked orders that brook no questioning. Ailes is a stain on an American history that’s still be written, and that’s why his wrongs, for all the hideous personal transgression, don’t feel fully accounted for here. Ailes was a committed backer of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, and as his body failed and his position was lost, the candidate took off. You can read Trump as Ailes’s definitive victory, the final hurrah of the man who soiled the world, but perhaps his real vindication is that a series such as The Loudest Voice can’t fully encompass the monstrousness of Roger Ailes. Even in death, he remains bigger than the medium he transformed.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.

@CMscreens

The Loudest Voice. Photograph courtesy of Stan.

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