There are a few problems with the Showtime miniseries “The Loudest Voice,” but Russell Crowe is not one of them. He plays Roger Ailes, the man who, with Rupert Murdoch, created Fox News in his own image — and altered the soul of this country in the process. Like a gush of vinegar poured into a tub of baking soda, Ailes helped trigger the political volcano that continues to erupt 23 years after his channel premiered.
Crowe has been placed inside some puffy prosthetics, and at times he looks like a human-scaled blimp coasting down the thin hallways of Fox. But Crowe is never overwhelmed by the synthetic mass. He fully masters that stiff bulkiness, generally in a suit and tie, and uses it as a kind of extension of Ailes’s personality — overbearing, emotionally insulated, and at times, when it suits his purposes, avuncular. (Actor Simon McBurney is less fortunate with his rubbery encasement; his Murdoch has the awkwardly taut facial flexibility of Kim Hunter in “Planet of the Apes.”)
Crowe’s Ailes is more than a one-dimensional rage-filled antihero who, ultimately, had to resign from Fox News after allegations of sexual misconduct; on his face, we see the subtle provocations and insecurities that lead to his angry outbursts and his callous treatment of women. I’m not suggesting that the miniseries rationalizes Ailes’s misbehavior, but it does make him into a human being. At one point in the premiere, Sunday at 10 p.m., he spontaneously calls the staff into the office at 4 a.m. as the Fox launch approaches, to teach them a lesson about commitment. He’s certainly a hard worker, but his anxiety about his new project — to “reclaim the real America,” he tells them — is also in play as he lectures the room. Watching him repeatedly staring into the video monitors he’s had placed all over the office and his home is to see a man with serious trust and control issues.
Ultimately, though, Crowe may be the only layered thing about “The Loudest Voice.” Don’t get me wrong: The seven-episode miniseries, four episodes of which were made available to critics, is steadily entertaining, as it tracks Ailes from 1995 to the end of his life in 2017. I was never bored, as each episode focuses on a particular year in Ailes’s life, including his hurried construction of Fox News, his post-9/11 commitment (in league with Karl Rove and Dick Cheney) to a war in Iraq, and his disgust at the newly elected President Barack Obama, inspiring his decision to have the network push rumors that Obama was a Muslim who was not born in this country. As in “Vice,” which features a similarly rich prosthetic-encased turn by Christian Bale as Cheney, cartoony versions of famous people — including Patch Darragh’s Sean Hannity and Naomi Watts’s Gretchen Carlson — can be amusing to watch even when they’re flat.
But “The Loudest Voice” becomes a simplistic and obvious anatomy of Fox News. Too much of the dialogue in the script, whose writers include “Spotlight” director Tom McCarthy, doubles as fuel on the fire, with little dramatic purpose. At various meetings and conversations, Ailes says that he’s looking for faces for Fox that will play in the middle of the country (i.e. white faces); he notes that Fox will be fueled by PR and not necessarily by the news; he describes giving Americans what they want — someone to blame for 9/11. He is quite open about making up facts simply to fuel the fears and interest of his anti-Democratic audience. Most of the viewers of “The Loudest Voice” are going to know all this already, but the miniseries simply wants to rile them up rather than dig into the story. I kept wanting the writers to go back further in time to Ailes’s less well-known early life, as an adviser to President Richard Nixon.
The portrayals of Ailes’s harassment and abuse also strain to be more incendiary than dramatic. His humiliation of the women at Fox is hard to watch, as it should be — but too often those scenes are weakened by a garish horror-movie affect. When he paws at women and uses inappropriate language in the office, the miniseries works. His demand that Watts’s Carlson do a twirl in the hallway — and her sly submission to it — are disturbing. His regular abuse of Laurie Luhn (Annabelle Wallis), a former Fox News research assistant, are less effective, though, as they go over the top into Lifetime movie territory. We understand that Luhn is being destroyed by Ailes, and giving us heated-up images of her falling apart doesn’t drive that home. That kind of overblown storytelling may work on cable news, but not in a scripted drama.
THE LOUDEST VOICE
Starring: Russell Crowe, Sienna Miller, Naomi Watts, Aleksa Palladino, Josh Charles, Seth MacFarlane, Mackenzie Astin, Patch Darragh, Barry Watson, Josh Stamberg, Simon McBurney, Annabelle Wallis
On: Showtime, Sunday at 10 p.m.