“I know what people are going to say about me. I can pretty much pick the words for you: right-wing, paranoid, fat.” So begins Showtime’s The Loudest Voice, a seven-episode biopic of Roger Ailes, the longtime chairman and mastermind of Fox News, who died in 2017 and is here played by Russell Crowe. Pugnacious and seemingly self-deprecating as these opening lines are, like so much with Ailes, they’re all spin. The words aren’t particularly nice, but they are much tamer than the ones he deserves, including sexual harasser and propagandist. If one were apportioning blame for how we arrived at this particularly odious, debased, hyperpartisan political moment, a significant share, perhaps even the lion’s, should be heaped upon Ailes. But if Ailes were still alive, he’d likely take that blame as a compliment. It’s what he worked so hard for.
The Loudest Voice, based on Gabriel Sherman’s book, The Loudest Voice in the Room, begins in 2017, with Ailes’ death, before jumping back to 1995 and the founding of Fox News. Ailes, a longtime political operative and media consultant credited with, among other things, Richard Nixon’s election, was selected by Rupert Murdoch to run his cable news upstart, which Ailes envisioned from the start as aiming at only a portion of the audience, the conservative base. Every episode of the series focuses on a key year in Ailes’ and Fox News’ trajectory, with actors playing real-life characters from Rupert Murdoch (Simon McBurney) to Sean Hannity (Patch Darragh) to Gretchen Carlson (Naomi Watts).
The series begins as full-steam-ahead entertainment, an Aaron Sorkin–ish explication of history, in which the past plays out with the buzzwords of the future. “We want to turn out the base,” Ailes says in a 1995 pitch meeting, while casually dropping the essential insight that would drive Fox News success: People want to have their concerns and beliefs affirmed and amplified, not challenged. “People don’t want to be informed,” Ailes explains. “They want to feel informed.”
How Ailes came by his politics is not in the show’s purview. As it begins, he is already casually racist (“Who ordered the masala pussy?” he says after an interview with a South Asian candidate), convinced that media is liberal-biased, and obsessed with the idea that there are “real Americans” who share his conservative beliefs and who are superior to other less-white/more-urban/less-conservative Americans. Initially, the portrayal of Ailes feels affectedly restrained, amplified by Crowe’s performance, which is so controlled that even when he’s yelling at his staff at 4 a.m., he skirts being genuinely scary. But that restraint pays off. As Ailes becomes more powerful, and his thinking simultaneously more diseased and more effectual, the show gives him the rope to hang himself.
In the wake of 9/11, Ailes willingly turns his network into a propagandist arm of the Bush administration, tying al-Qaida to Iraq despite a lack of evidence. He becomes more grotesque after Obama’s election, fixated on Obama’s “otherness.” He asks an employee how the story about Obama’s Islamic education is going, and when she replies that they haven’t been able to nail anything down, he says, “He 100 percent was raised in a Muslim school. I have it on very good authority.” He’s a paranoiac who believes his delusions are the truth, and he has the power to spread them.
As the series goes on, Ailes’ better qualities (I’m hard-pressed to say good) are shown to be fungible. Occasionally the true believer, at other times he’s just an opportunist, willing to give up a larger fight for his own betterment. A rich man who purports to care about the common man, a drive through his hometown, where working-class Americans are dealing with the 2008 crash, skeeves him out to his core. A man devoted to “protecting his people,” he happily sends hundreds of thousands of Americans off to an unjustified war and sexually abuses and degrades one female employee for years and years with terrible menace. (Through the first four episodes, all that were available to critics, the series does not get into the copious other charges of sexual harassment.) He flippantly insults people who disagree with him as “Stalin,” while running half-truths meant to make viewers do the administration’s bidding. He spews banalities about America being founded on the flag, family, and God, while gleefully sowing discord everywhere.
The cumulative picture of Ailes is damning, but it is one of the horrific ironies of The Loudest Room that someone propagandized by Ailes and his television network could conceivably watch large portions of The Loudest Voice and think that it was essentially complimentary, cataloging Ailes’ fundamentally righteous vision: because Obama did go to a madrassa and wasn’t born in the United States and is a Communist, because the mainstream media is unacceptably liberal and has it in for real Americans, because someone does need to protect those same real Americans from immigrants of who knows what race, and on and on and on.
Like Chernobyl or When They See Us, The Loudest Voice is tackling a piece of poisonous history, the story of a man who took things that seemed to be rules—journalistic ethics, unbiased reporting, respect for the office of the president, a wish to keep the peace, not lying—and demonstrated that they were just norms to be flouted and flayed at will. But unlike those other series, it’s packaged as a biopic and not some larger condemnation of “our times.” As I watched it, I kept wondering if something so relatively understated that aspires—unlike Ailes—to come across as relatively unbiased was too subtle for the world that Ailes created.
But then, maybe our times supply all the insane context necessary. It is unsettling beyond measure to watch The Loudest Voice as, say, the Supreme Court hands down a decision essentially permitting political gerrymandering in perpetuity, just one of the political results made possible by the partisan groundwork Ailes and Fox News laid over multiple decades. The Loudest Voice may ultimately condemn Roger Ailes as something far worse than the fat, right-wing, paranoiac he describes himself as, but what is so disturbing about the series—what is so disturbing about history!—is that it doesn’t matter. He still won.