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Roger Ailes was a larger-than-life figure, and Russell Crowe rises to that challenge with an epic performance in “The Loudest Voice,” capturing the bravado and bombast of the Fox News founder as well as his well-documented abuses. The result is a compelling if flawed condensation of Gabriel Sherman’s book, worth watching for anyone interested in the political-media nexus where Ailes reigned.
Instead of a conventional biography, “The Loudest Voice” illustrates Ailes’ influence and appetites through a series of key moments, from the founding of Fox News – the ultimate act of defiance toward his former NBC bosses – to the Sept. 11 attacks to his visceral response to Barack Obama. Ailes particularly relished that last fight, after insisting that the then-candidate’s middle name, Hussein, always be used.
Taken together, the episodes demonstrate the way Ailes used his media perch to pursue ideological objectives, steamrolling over anyone who got in his way, and resisting any efforts to constrain him. That included intrusions by News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch (Simon McBurney), ostensibly his boss.
Ailes not only protected his turf but commanded intense loyalty from those around him, many of whom turned a blind eye to his reported transgressions. The hostile environment extended not only to his alleged behavior toward female employees but ordering a subordinate to deal with similar allegations against star anchor Bill O’Reilly by paying off an accuser.
“Look at his numbers,” Ailes mumbles. “Just take care of it.” (Ailes, who died in 2017, staunchly defended himself in regard to the complaints, as has O’Reilly, but both were forced to leave the network.)
Ailes brought the zeal of a true believer to a media operation that bore his stamp down to the smallest detail, telling the more pragmatic Murdoch – who Ailes wasn’t above scheming against – “This is our time.”
After Sept. 11, Ailes is depicted becoming increasingly paranoid. His predatory behavior, meanwhile, is depicted through his domineering relationship with booker Laurie Luhn (a haunting Annabelle Wallis), although even Ailes wife, Elizabeth (Sienna Miller), is managed when she dares exhibit independence or, in his eyes, risks undermining him.
Crowe doesn’t impersonate Ailes so much as inhabit him, from his padded waddle to his thunderous bouts of anger. At the same time, he conveys the charm the executive could turn on when rallying the troops – most of whom, like a radio host named Sean Hannity (Patch Darragh), owed their lucrative careers to him.
The main flaws are structural, to the extent that “The Loudest Voice” is too episodic, skipping over significant interludes such as the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky story – a significant oversight, since that coverage, along with Sept. 11, helped propel Fox to the ratings perch that left Ailes’ corporate clout virtually unassailable.
Similarly, the fourth episode devotes too much time to Ailes’ involvement in local politics by buying his community newspaper. Yes, it underscores his bullying tactics but also proves less interesting than high-stakes brawling with the Obama administration or Murdoch’s Australian aides.
Executive produced by, among others, Tom McCarthy (“Spotlight”), who wrote the premiere with Sherman, “The Loudest Voice” portrays the enormous footprint Ailes left – building Fox upon a business model predicated not merely on besting established media rivals but endeavoring to discredit them.
Those issues merit attention, although the truth is this inside-baseball exercise will likely resonate loudest in the typical media bastions, while Ailes’ ideological allies will do what he would have done – namely, circle the wagons and shoot the messenger.
Setting aside politics, “The Loudest Voice” showcases an impressive cast that also includes Naomi Watts as Gretchen Carlson and Seth MacFarlane as former Fox public-relations chief Brian Lewis.
“I want it to say, ‘America at War,’” Ailes says, fixing his gaze on a post-Sept. 11 chyron and the banner streaming across the screen.
What “The Loudest Voice” makes clear is that for Ailes, the war against enemies real and imagined never ended, and has endured even after its top general was no longer around to wage it.
“The Loudest Voice” premieres June 30 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.