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'The Loudest Voice' review: Russell Crowe's full-bodied, one-sided portrayal of Fox News' Roger Ailes

Russell Crowe as Roger Ailes in  Showtime's

Russell Crowe as Roger Ailes in  Showtime's "The Loudest Voice." Credit: SHOWTIME/JoJo Whilden

LIMITED SERIES "The Loudest Voice"

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Former political media consultant Roger Ailes (Russell Crowe) has just been fired from CNBC and is ready for a new challenge. Rupert Murdoch (veteran British actor, director and playwright Simon McBurney) has just the thing — a cable news channel to challenge CNN. Ailes' idea is to essentially counterprogram the rest of the mainstream media with a conservative-leaning network, and the Fox News Channel is born Oct. 7, 1996. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Ailes shifts FNC more sharply to the right, turning it into a bullhorn for President George W. Bush's call for a war in Iraq, then later, a battering ram against candidate Barack Obama, whom he instructs his anchors to refer to as "Barack Hussein Obama." Meanwhile, his private life: Ailes' wife, Beth (Sienna Miller), who tends to their vast estate in Garrison, New York, wants another challenge and her husband buys her one, a local newspaper. Ailes has also employed Laurie Luhn (Annabelle Wallis), whose only apparent job is to service his sexual desires. He later makes a fateful pass at Gretchen Carlson (Naomi Watts).

This short-run series is based on Gabriel Sherman's 2014 book, "The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News." It was adapted by Tom McCarthy, who won an Oscar  for the screenplay of 2015's "Spotlight." 

MY SAY In the opening seconds of this seven-parter, Ailes — presumably from the great beyond (he died in 2017 at 77) — declares that he knows "what people are gonna say about" him after he's gone.

Not to disappoint, Roger, but what most people probably said was, "Who?"

Long an object of curiosity and ultimately obsession in the media/political worlds, none of this ever really translated to household name status, including the households of Fox News Channel. There's one obvious reason why: Ailes would never put someone on the air who looked like Roger Ailes, and in his case, he didn't. Like most TV executives, he believed viewers would be less inclined to flip the channel if the anchors they were watching were telegenic, preferably blonde-thin-female telegenic.

"The Loudest Voice" obviously doesn't have a choice in the matter. It's all about Ailes, all the time. Crowe gained weight for last fall's theatrical "Boy Erased," and kept some of that for this role, but not quite enough. He's wearing a fat suit here, while prosthetics have added the extra chin or two. His eyes are a pair of ice-blue marbles that stare out from that well-padded face. When he smiles, he can scarcely manage a rictus. When he walks, he shuffles. When he sits, he protrudes. The transformation is stunning, but the effect — scene after scene, hour after hour — can be numbing. 

People who knew Ailes, or competed against him, or worked for him, or (for that matter) wrote about him over the last 30 years were left no shortage of impressions beyond those physical ones. But Sherman's exhaustive reporting, and later the reporting of The New York Times, ensured one final impression, that of a sadist and serial sexual predator, who drove one of his victims (Luhn) to a breakdown.

This is the Ailes of "The Loudest Voice," and after four episodes (the ones made available for review) that can be numbing, too — or worse. When he drags Luhn into a hotel room for another sordid assignation, you may be tempted to turn the channel. (My advice: Don't necessarily resist the urge.) 

Because Crowe is on-screen for so much of the time, the effect is amplified. He's the miserable boss from hell who launched Fox on his own by collecting a bunch of nobodies to ape his self-styled GOP fifth column. In "The Loudest Voice," they're mostly actors playing real people — Sean Hannity, Steve Doocy, Glenn Beck, Rupert Murdoch — who look nothing like them. In a bewildering omission and missed opportunity, the series doesn't even bother to cast anyone to play Bill O'Reilly. (For some obscure reason, "Family Guy's" Seth MacFarlane plays former Fox PR man Brian Lewis, but if there had been an O'Reilly part, he just might have been perfect for it.)

You now know that "The Loudest Voice" is far from a fun series, but is it an important series? It has the beginnings of one, but the creation of Fox was far more complicated than this allows and, for that matter, so was its creator. Instead, we get the most obvious side to his story, along with the most repellent side. Perhaps that's ultimately — or grimly — fair, but it's not particularly balanced, or engaging.

BOTTOM LINE Crowe is good to a point, but "The Loudest Voice" can be root canal. 

While "The Loudest Voice" is largely based on Gabriel Sherman's 2014 book, the real horror story of this series had nothing to do with it. The particulars of this story would arrive two years later, when Sherman interviewed a onetime airline stewardess by the name of Laurie Luhn.

Luhn (played here by British actress Annabelle Wallis) told the New York Magazine writer that she met the future chairman of Fox News when she was a 28-year-old volunteer for the George H.W. Bush campaign in 1988.

They were in an elevator together, and Luhn expressed admiration for the ads Ailes had helped craft for the campaign. A few days, she recalled, he walked by her desk, saying, “If there is ever anything I can do for you, let me know.”

She told Sherman that was the beginning of a 20-year sexual relationship — one in which she endured "psychological torture," humiliation and harassment. Per Sherman's report, she was hired years later as an event planner at Fox News and also as a booker, making as much as $250,000 a year, and would sign a $3.15 million severance package in 2011.

But Luhn told Sherman that her role there had less to do with events, more to do with sexual favors for Ailes. She said she suffered a breakdown in 2007, and later moved to California — while still on the Fox payroll — where she suffered a complete breakdown. A few years later (late 2010 or early 2011, per Sherman's report), she wrote a letter to Fox's top legal counsel, saying she had been sexually harassed by Ailes over a 20-year period. The settlement was struck by the summer of 2011.

Sherman's bombshell story arrived in the midst of a Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison investigation into Ailes' behavior that had begun on July 6, 2016 — the day Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual harassment complaint against Ailes. Per a New York Times report, some 20 women, including Megyn Kelly, told investigators of inappropriate behavior. Ailes stepped down that month.

—VERNE GAY

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