When Laurie Luhn is first introduced in “The Loudest Voice,” Roger Ailes is a dark shadow in the corner of a bar. Diminished in the background of director Kari Skogland’s frame, the ousted MSNBC executive (given considerable range by Oscar-winner Russell Crowe) nevertheless looms like a boogeyman in the black and blue light of their Manhattan meeting spot, soon swaying his way over to Luhn (Annabelle Wallis) and pitching her on a new venture: Fox News. Ailes is building his right-wing news empire and wants to help his former research assistant move toward on-camera roles.
As the two talk, first about her “nice” boyfriend and unwillingness to relocate for work, there are flashes of Luhn standing in what appears to be a hotel hallway. As visibly reticent as she is in the bar, she’s far more uncomfortable in the well-lit corridor, and soon, it’s obvious why: Ailes appears behind her, walking up and touching the pearls draped around her neck. Back in their meeting, we hear him say, “You’ve always had that star power in my eyes, you know that,” and as the blue lights embedded in the bar twinkle in his bulky glasses, you know Luhn is going to take his offer, knowing full well what comes with it.
For anyone only tangentially familiar with the ugly saga of Roger Ailes’ ugly life, this scene is unsettling. For anyone who knows that, at this time, Luhn had already been sexually harassed and assaulted by the former presidential adviser, making this a return to torment for the escaped victim, well, the scene is simply nauseating. No matter what viewers bring to it, the scene doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know, and neither does “The Loudest Voice.” But at times, at least, the Showtime limited series produced by Blumhouse Television is a compelling, even artful, historical horror show out to remind viewers how “news” and politics were manipulated into the sorry state they’re in today.
Early on, “The Loudest Voice” does well turning Ailes into a brilliant boogeyman — respecting what he was able to accomplish without endorsing the how or why. Pulled from Gabriel Sherman’s book “The Loudest Voice in the Room,” as well as additional research done by the journalist after Ailes’ death, the first four episodes find various ways to outline the conservative leader’s convincing arguments as well as his masked monstrous nature.
JoJo Whilden / Showtime
Starting in 1995, each episode tackles about a year in Ailes’ life, from how he freed himself up to run Fox News to the defining moments of the network’s coverage. Episode 2, “2001,” shows how 9/11 shaped his vision for the future, tracking his initial fear and how it quickly turned to anger, and soon after, wrath. While wanting to get all the news up at once without losing the compelling image of the still-standing towers, Ailes makes the call to run updates as a scroll across the bottom of the screen “like sports scores.” But his vindictive spirit overwhelms any entrepreneurial flourishes, as he later pushes Fox News to show footage of people jumping from the burning towers: “We need the whole world to see what these animals have done to us.”
Crowe proves particularly talented at bouncing between the man pitched to the public, press, and peers, as well as the horror show hidden underneath, and the actor slowly unveils his character’s dark side to more and more people. His puppy dog eyes flicker with muted embarrassment when his wife, Beth (Sienna Miller), turns down his job offer, but that empathetic moment vanishes quickly, as he processes vulnerability as weakness and gets angry all over again. Crowe will get a lot of accolades for shouting and prowling, as well as plenty of tweets and questions about the prosthetics (both he and Miller inhabit them just fine), but these smaller touches are what gives any bombastic outburst its power. (Also, Crowe is an actor known for his own outbursts, so seeing his softer side again is a welcome bucking of expectations instead of leaning into them.)
JoJo Whilden / Showtime
Oddly enough given the title, “The Loudest Voice” starts to feel less revealing and more salacious when it abandons nuance for loud noises. Not only is Crowe’s work more affecting during the all-too-brief moments studying Ailes’ origins, psyche, and internal motivations, but the show is, as well. Watching Ailes wantonly steer Fox News into a battleship of misinformation, with its missiles pointed squarely at the Democratic party, is unquestionably dramatic — with Tom McCarthy (“Spotlight”) and Sherman, not to mention Skogland, bringing the events back to detailed life — but it soon starts embodying its subject, grabbing at easy, salacious headlines rather than explore finer, intimate, and unknown emotional territory.
Before the halfway point in this seven-episode series, Luhn’s hotel room scene is revisited, and the implicit is made explicit. After such an effective presentation early on, the biggest question becomes… why bother? The question plagues “The Loudest Voice” overall, as it moves from shaded exploration to voyeuristic pulp. There’s only a little insight, scarce new information, and maybe a few things most viewers weren’t already well-aware of; if the series helps anyone understand how Fox News continues to help the Republican party, then it’s served a valuable purpose… but they should really know that by now.
Turning it around, I can’t imagine “The Loudest Voice” being so much as a fly on Fox News’ radar. It’s got bigger fish to fry, more fake news to create, and probably doesn’t see a good reason to revisit their founder’s rise and fall at this particular moment, even to take a swat at a besmirching nuisance. As much as I hate to agree with Ailes’ brainchild on anything, I might have to there.
“The Loudest Voice” premieres Sunday, June 30 at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime.