We are undeniably living in the world that Roger Ailes wrought, with its irrevocable partisan divides, its perpetual anger, and its blistering anti-elites messages propagated unironically by Manhattanite one-percenters. The Loudest Voice is, for the most part, a fascinating breakdown of how one man used a media platform to upend politics, starting with Fox News’s launch in 1996, and continuing through Ailes’s ouster in 2016 after multiple allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct. Crowe disappears into the physicality of his character, aided by plasticized jowls and cheek folds that can edge a hair too close to the uncanny valley. “I know what people are gonna say about me,” Crowe’s Ailes growls in the show’s opening scene, seemingly from the afterlife. “I can pretty much pick the words for you. ‘Right-wing.’ ‘Paranoid.’ ‘Fat.’” But if there is more to Ailes than these three adjectives, The Loudest Voice never quite pinpoints what it might be.
In part, this is because Crowe’s performance oscillates between leering plutocrat and raving paranoiac, without nailing the fanaticism in between that made Ailes’s vision of America so contagious. There’s nothing in the earliest episodes about his origins as a production assistant on local television, or his entry into politics repackaging Richard Nixon into a more telegenic product. The series begins as Ailes, having been pushed out of his role at CNBC, goes to work for the media magnate Rupert Murdoch (Simon McBurney). His vision is to make Fox News a cable channel for what he sees as the underserved conservative viewers of America, and Murdoch, swayed by the promise of tapping into a whole new market, concedes.
From the very beginning, there’s tension between Murdoch’s profiteering interests and Ailes’s ideological convictions. The second episode jumps forward to 2001, when the events of 9/11 seemed to further exacerbate Ailes’s most reactionary and bigoted tendencies. (Introduced to a Saudi prince at one of Murdoch’s red-carpet events, Ailes says, “I’m just glad you didn’t hit any buildings on the way in.”) As he watches the second plane hit the World Trade Center, Crowe’s expression as Ailes curdles into a strange combination of fury and excitement. While other networks elect not to air footage of people jumping from the buildings, Ailes insists that Fox run it. “We need everyone in the goddamn world to see what these animals have done to us,” he snarls.
The series cycles through 2008, when Barack Obama’s nomination as the Democratic candidate for president seemed to send Ailes—and Fox—into an even more poisonous frenzy, and through the first year of Obama’s presidency, when Ailes began stoking the birther movement that questioned the former senator’s citizenship. There are allusions to Ailes’s own paranoia at this time, but not the full extent of it—like the bunker he installed underneath his home with six months’ worth of survival rations, and the trees he removed around the property to have a clear view should any leftist groups attack. The Loudest Voice seems more intent on probing the political and sociological impact of Fox News than the ferociously complicated psychology of the man who created it. It’s a worthy mission, but it leaves the character at the center of the series at something of a distance. Is he a true iconoclast, or just an opportunist? Does he truly believe in the battle between good and evil he sells every day on cable news, or does he simply get a puissant thrill from winning?