The Loudest Voice

The #metoo dramas are here, with the arrival of The Loudest Voice, screening on Stan.

Based on the book The Loudest Voice in the Room by by Gabriel Sherman, this dramatises the rise and fall of FOX News boss Roger Ailes, who built a cable news channel for Rupert Murdoch in the late 1990s but fell from grace in 2016 when anchor Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against him.

A year later he was dead.

Russell Crowe undertakes the Ailes role with some serious firepower. Heavily made-up and padded, he is hired by Rupert Murdoch (Simon McBurney, also applied with make-up) to build up the rival to MSNBC in just six months.

It’s clear in the script that the man had an innate sense of how to connect with mass audiences.

“I believe in the power of television. Giving people what they want, even if they don’t know what they want,” he says.

But as any good Shakespearean saga reminds us, absolute power corrupts absolutely. All of these things make for a fascinating small screen drama for anyone who loves their behind-the-scenes stuff (a separate feature film on the subject is due later this year).

It was Ailes who advised Murdoch to adopt a conservative tone to his new channel, to contrast with so many left-wing media, if only to underpin a business model.

“Who is your audience?” he asked. “Cable is about one thing: niche.”

Later he would quip, “Left wing media creates opportunity.”

Ailes hired PR man Brian Lewis (Seth MacFarlane) to sell the message, while at home Elizabeth (Sienna Miller), herself a media exec, was neglected.

A climate of political incorrectness and bullying pervades the walls of FOX News, with misogyny and derogatory language all part of the ’90s furniture. As the title suggests, there are numerous scenes of Ailes roaring like a lion, thumping the table, behaving like a media tyrant.

He challenges a young Lachlan Murdoch (Barry Watson) when his authority is called into question, he tells vision switchers how to do their job, summons staff to meetings at 4 in the morning and has the ear of republican presidents.

But he also pressures young females into sleeping their way to the top, casting blonde anchors on their physical attributes and arranging clandestine meetings in hotel suites.

“TV is a competitive business. You have to be prepared to go all the way,” he whispers (there’s a lot of whispering when he isn’t roaring).

Each episode is set in a different year in the life of FOX News, with the second episode hinged around the 9/11 catastrophe. Although Ailes is horrified by the disaster unfolding within sight of their building, he also grabs hold of it as a chance to divide and conquer the news cycle. While CNN wants to report a global perspective, FOX News is unashamedly red, white & blue.

Make no mistake, Crowe is commanding in a drama in which he is just about in every scene. He brings gravitas to the role as a man with an unflinching drive to win. In his shadow all other players become supporting roles (Naomi Watts as Gretchen Carlson does not appear in early eps).

The 7 part series also requires considerable suspension of disbelief. As impressive as the transformation is of Crowe to Ailes, it’s hard not to see past such distracting make-up, rather than casting an actor who already bears a likeness. When Ailes is arguing with Rupert Murdoch (who has a faulty Aussie accent) it risks turning into Rubbery Figures.

But you do forgive those shortcomings for the performance of Crowe and the insight into this cruel, desperate media empire. This is where I end up telling myself that at least we learn from the mistakes of history.

Don’t we?

The Loudest Voice begins Monday on Stan.

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