Loud But Not Captivating: Drama About Fox News Chief Roger Ailes Falls Flat | KALW

Loud But Not Captivating: Drama About Fox News Chief Roger Ailes Falls Flat

Jun 28, 2019
Originally published on June 29, 2019 1:54 pm

On June 30, the Showtime network launches a new TV miniseries called The Loudest Voice. Based on the Gabriel Sherman book The Loudest Voice in the Room, it's a seven-part drama about the television triumphs and controversies of Roger Ailes, who created and ran the Fox News Channel.

The title The Loudest Voice is supposed to refer not only to Ailes, but also to the news network he helped generate with the backing of media tycoon Rupert Murdoch. There actually are two stories told here: one about the development and rise of Fox News, the other about the many alleged sexual abuses of power that eventually led to the firing of both Ailes and network star Bill O'Reilly, in what became some of the earliest high-profile scandals of the #MeToo era.

The central star of this Showtime account is Russell Crowe, loaded beneath many pounds of makeup and prosthetics to portray Ailes. But in the three episodes provided for preview, he's not at all captivating — and neither is The Loudest Voice as an ongoing drama.

Including Sherman, six writers in all are credited with writing this teleplay, and there are four different directors. Instead of telling a linear story, the miniseries jumps and lands at various spots in time, with each episode devoted to a specific year. Sunday's premiere episode (after a brief prologue in which Ailes posthumously remarks on his own death in 2017) is set in 1996, the year Ailes and Murdoch launched Fox News. The second episode is set in 2001, after Sept. 11. And the third jumps to 2008, the year Barack Obama was elected president of the United States.

In this stop-and-start structure, there's no early establishment of the rise of Ailes, who worked his way through local and syndicated TV, at one point producing The Mike Douglas Show, an affable talk program of the 1960s. There's no indication that he was hired as a political adviser by one of that show's impressed guests, Richard Nixon, whom Ailes helped reach the Oval Office. We don't see Ailes help guide successful presidential campaigns for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, or run the CNBC cable network. No, when The Loudest Voice begins, he's being fired from CNBC — for unspecified wrongdoings — and finagling an exit clause that prevents him from moving to any existing competing news network, but does leave the door open for him to start and run a new one.

Hence, Fox News. And when Murdoch holds a meeting to discuss what the proposed new network might look like, his Australian management adviser suggests a sort of 24-hour, tabloid-TV version of A Current Affair. But Ailes, Rupert's new hire, has other ideas. He wants to targets a new audience: conservatives who mistrust the media. And in almost every time Crowe, as Ailes, speaks in this show, he's not just the loudest voice. He's the only voice — the one almost everyone instantly agrees with, or is afraid to oppose. What that is, is a little too pat. What it isn't, is dramatic.

By the third episode, Fox News is not only up and running; it's the top-rated cable news operation around. And there are glimpses, though far too few, that show how Ailes and his operation really worked — as when Ailes is watching Fox News in his office, and instantly calls the control room after hearing something that bothers him. He orders that whenever the anchors refer to Obama, they include his middle name of Hussein.

Co-stars in The Loudest Voice include Seth MacFarlane as Fox News' former PR chief Brian Lewis, Simon McBurney as Murdoch, and Sienna Miller as Roger's wife, Elizabeth. Naomi Watts is anchor Gretchen Carlson and Annabelle Wallis is network booker Laurie Luhn — two of the women at Fox News who accused Ailes of sexual harassment on the job. And while these women and their stories are bound to become more prominent in the episodes to come, the treatment of Luhn, even in the opening hours, is uncomfortable to watch. One scene that feels particularly lurid captures Luhn kneeling between Ailes' legs — from the point of view of Ailes' video camcorder. Here comes the first television production directly dramatizing a modern-day, high-profile sexual harassment case — yet it does so in a way that almost feels like its own type of exploitation.

These women are presented sketchily and briefly. And as I said, I've seen only three of this show's seven hours, so the treatment of women, and the overall subject matter, could get better as The Loudest Voice progresses. But given what we know of the charges against Ailes in the later years covered by this miniseries, I have my doubts.

Correction: 6/29/19

An earlier version of this story incorrectly named Brian Lewis as Fox News' PR chief. Lewis is the network's former PR chief.

Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. This Sunday the Showtime TV network launches a new miniseries called "The Loudest Voice." Based on the book "The Loudest Voice In The Room" by Gabriel Sherman, it's a seven-part drama about the television triumphs and controversies of Roger Ailes, who created and ran the Fox News Channel.

The title "The Loudest Voice" is supposed to refer not only to Ailes but also to the news network he helped generate with backing from media tycoon Rupert Murdoch. There actually are two stories told here, one about the development and rise of Fox News, the other about the many alleged sexual abuses of power that eventually got Roger Ailes and one of his network's biggest stars fired in what became some of the earliest high-profile scandals of the #MeToo era.

The central star of this Showtime account is Russell Crowe, who's loaded beneath many pounds of makeup and prosthetics to portray Roger Ailes. But in the three episodes provided for preview, he's not at all captivating. And neither is "The Loudest Voice" as an ongoing drama. Including author Sherman, six writers in all are credited with writing this teleplay, and there are four different directors.

Instead of telling a linear story, the miniseries jumps and lands at various spots in time, with each episode devoted to a specific year. Sunday's premiere episode, after a brief prologue in which Crowe, as Ailes, posthumously remarks on his own death in 2017, is set in 1996, the year Ailes and Murdoch launch Fox News. The second episode is set in 2001, after 9/11. And the third jumps to 2008, the year Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. In this stop-and-start structure, there's no early establishment of the rise of Roger Ailes, who worked his way through local and syndicated TV - he produced "The Mike Douglas Show," an affable talk program of the 1960s - or that he was hired as a political adviser by one of that show's impressed guests, Richard Nixon, whom Ailes helped reach the Oval Office - or to watch Ailes helped guide other successful presidential campaigns for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, or even to run the CNBC cable network.

No, when "The Loudest Voice" begins, he's being fired from CNBC for unspecified wrongdoings and finagling an exit clause that prevents him from moving to any existing competing news network but leaves the door open for him to start and run a new one - hence, Fox News. And when Rupert Murdoch holds a meeting to discuss what the proposed new network might look like, his Australian management adviser suggests a sort of 24-hour tabloid-TV version of "A Current Affair." But Roger Ailes, Rupert's new hire, has other ideas. And as in almost every time Russell Crowe as Ailes speaks in this Showtime TV show, he's not just the loudest voice; he's the only voice, the one almost everyone instantly agrees with or is afraid to oppose. What that is is a little too pat. What it isn't is dramatic.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LOUDEST VOICE")

RUSSELL CROWE: (As Roger Ailes) One question, who is your audience?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Everyone. We want to reach the widest audience possible.

CROWE: (As Roger Ailes) Well, I think that's wrong.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Excuse me?

CROWE: (As Roger Ailes) We don't need everyone. Your problem is that you're talking broadcast. Cable is different. Cable is about one thing, niche, the loyalty of a passionate few. We need to program directly to the viewer who is predisposed to buying what we're trying to sell. In politics, it's called turning out the base. If we can do that, then they will never change the channel.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) And what is that niche?

CROWE: (As Roger Ailes) Well, I think it is conservatives. It's roughly half the damn country.

BIANCULLI: By the third episode, Fox News is not only up and running; it's the top-rated cable news operation around. And there are glimpses, though far too few, that show how Ailes and his operation really worked, as when Ailes is watching Fox News in his office and instantly calls the control room after hearing something that bothers him.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LOUDEST VOICE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As TV Announcer) Barack Obama, still ahead in the polls, today blamed Wall Street for the financial crash. With markets in turmoil, some experts wonder if Democratic candidate Barack Obama will issue a call to break up the banks. With unemployment now at 6 1/2% and 240,000 Americans newly unemployed...

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE DIALING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Mark) Control room.

CROWE: (As Roger Ailes) Mark, his name is Barack Hussein Obama. Always use his middle name.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Mark) We don't have to worry about pushback?

CROWE: (As Roger Ailes) No, it's respectful. It's like Martin Luther King.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Mark) OK, you got it.

CROWE: (As Roger Ailes, under his breath) Or John Wayne Gacy.

BIANCULLI: Co-stars in "The Loudest Voice" include Seth MacFarlane as a Fox News PR chief, Simon McBurney as Murdoch and Sienna Miller as Roger's wife, Elizabeth. Playing some of the women at Fox News, women who ultimately accused Ailes of sexual harassment on the job, include Naomi Watts as anchor Gretchen Carlson and Annabelle Wallis as a network booker.

And while these women and their stories are bound to become more prominent in the episodes to come, the treatment of the latter even in the opening hours is uncomfortable to watch. Some scenes are filmed from the point of view of Ailes' video camcorder as the woman, Laurie, kneels between his legs and - well, you get the idea.

Here comes the first television production directly dramatizing a modern-day, high-profile sexual harassment case. Yet it does so in a way that's so lurid, it almost feels like its own type of exploitation. These women are presented sketchily and briefly.

And as I said, I've seen only three of this show's seven hours, so the treatment of women and the overall subject matter could get better as "The Loudest Voice" progresses. But given what we know of the charges against Ailes in the later years covered by this miniseries, I have my doubts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: Monday on the show we talk with journalist Casey Newton about the human toll of moderating Facebook's content. He's reported on many of the people who work for outside contractors monitoring texts or images of hate, murder, child exploitation, animal abuse and more. Besides the stress of the job, some workers face grim working conditions. Many of them are traumatized. One of them died. Newton also will tell us what Facebook is doing about it. Hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ED PALERMO BIG BAND'S "GIANT STEPS")

BIANCULLI: Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF ED PALERMO BIG BAND'S "GIANT STEPS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.