Roger Ailes, the man who monetized vitriol while helping to elect Donald Trump, is about to become a loud presence on the screen once again, but this time he won’t be running the show. Ailes is the lead character – indeed, the heavy – in both a Showtime series that premieres next week and a star-laden new movie.
If he were alive to see these productions, Ailes surely would scream “I’m mad as hell” as loudly as Bryan Cranston’s character in Broadway’s Network. Indeed, he would have been the perfect “heavy” for that show as well.
In The Loudest Voice, which debuts June 30 on Showtime, Russell Crowe forcefully embodies the late Fox News boss who terrifies colleagues, exploits leggy blond anchors and butchers the truth in his crusade to become the Godzilla of the news business. While fostering Trump’s base, Ailes also alternately delights and infuriates his bottom-line boss, Rupert Murdoch. The seven-part series is based on Gabriel Sherman’s book The Loudest Voice in the Room.
The second Ailes project, with a temp title of Fair and Balanced, focuses on the death-defying campaign of Fox’s star newsies to bring down Ailes’ butt-patting reign of terror. The formidable females are played by Charlize Theron (as Megyn Kelly), Nicole Kidman (Gretchen Carlson) and Margot Robbie as a fictional composite of other litigants. Lionsgate is distributing the film with John Lithgow as Ailes in December (Megan Ellison’s female-centric Annapurna Productions abruptly dropped out without explanation.)
Together, the shows provide viewers with a white-knuckle ride through the News Corp landscape – one promising big rewards with even bigger risks. The movie is directed by Jay Roach, who has brilliantly guided previous political thrill rides ranging from Game Change and Meet the Fockers.
At the opening of Loudest Voice, Ailes, having been fired from CNBC, spies the opportunity to invent a new channel that will appeal to “the 60% of America who believes the media is full of crap.” His anti-elitist thesis: “People want to feel informed but don’t want to be informed,” as he screams to Sean Hannity, “Don’t worry about what’s right or wrong” and never apologize for factual mistakes. If the lines seem heavy-handed, so arguably are the performances.
Ailes had already built a dubious reputation as a gun-for-hire political operative. Some former associates speculate that, had he been offered the job of running MSNBC instead of Fox News, he might have deployed his brash, tabloid-y style to shape that network – even politically.
Ailes, a liberal? In Crowe’s hard-edge, tough-talking depiction, he is a committed ideologue of the hard right. Lithgow’s blueprint in playing Ailes was to depict a more quietly insidious character who also could turn on the charm.
Full disclosure: The Ailes I got to know over an occasional dinner was more Lithgow than Crowe – a charmingly ruthless operator who was convinced he understood his business better than his rivals. Viewers of TV news are similar to movie audiences, he argued, in that they need to identify a “bad guy” to help them focus on the story. “I’m a producer, like you,” he would tell me.
Hence when 9/11 happened, Ailes was thrilled to single out Saddam Hussein as the ultimate heavy, and war with Iraq became the Fox News cause. War meant strong ratings. When other networks declined to run footage of 9/11 victims leaping from towers, Ailes screamed at his staff to run the footage. “This is no time for politics, this is war,” Murdoch warns him (on the TV show), but Ailes assured him that war was just what the Fox News constituency yearned for.
Whenever I would drop by to meet with Ailes, Bill O’Reilly or other acquaintances at Fox News, I always felt I was checking into a boys club whose members rigorously complied with their boss’ autocratic code. Women were chattels, who effectively carried “the message” to viewers with the understanding that they pay homage to their bosses, ideologically and sexually. The system worked, producing profits in the billions. Caught up in his own ego and paranoia, Ailes never noticed the embers of rebellion.
Since Ailes loved good storytelling, he might have coveted the power-play details of these two shows – except, as Groucho Marx once observed, “I don’t intend to be present at my own funeral.” Murdoch likely was relieved when he finally fired Ailes in 2016. But with 2020 looming, Fox News now might face blowback from viewers and advertisers if it plays as strident a role as it did two years ago. Murdoch always felt it was good business to be allied with the winning side, but, having disposed of most of his media empire, he now might be less tied to that conviction. Indeed, he even might consider sale of his existing assets, including Fox News. His son, Lachlan, supposedly has the ruling hand at Fox News, and he has made it known that he’s firmly on the right. On the other hand, he’s never been as oblivious to facts as was his predecessor.
Will he watch these two shows about his former associate? And will he, like Ailes, also want to distance himself from the truth?