“Television rarely, if ever, tells the whole story,” Roger Ailes says in an epigraph to Gabriel Sherman’s 2014 book about him, “The Loudest Voice in the Room.” But what about a combination of television and film? Can the two together reveal the bigger picture or simply offer two competing versions of the same narrative (as happened with the recent John Paul Getty film/TV show clash of “All the Money in the World” and “Trust”)?
Showtime’s seven-part TV series “The Loudest Voice” and Jay Roach’s new film “Bombshell” both recount the downfall of Ailes, the television mogul who worked on three successful GOP presidential campaigns for Nixon, Reagan and Bush Sr. back in the day, and then created one of the biggest game-changers in television history: Fox News.
Although “The Loudest Voice” debuted this summer, I decided not to watch it until “Bombshell” came out this month, curious to see what it would be like to view the two versions back to back.
The answer? Absolutely riveting, given their differing but complementary approaches – although having also just seen the 2018 documentary “Divide and Conquer: The Story of Roger Ailes,” which is strong on the producer’s early days on daytime TV, I can now safely say it’s “Roger and out” when it comes to watching this disgusting sleazebag who was also, alas, something of a genius.
“The Loudest Voice” adopts a forensic approach to Ailes’ time at Fox, zeroing in on several key moments over those two decades (accentuating the episodic nature of the TV format). “Bombshell” turns the moment when the Fox News chief got his comeuppance from a group of harassed female journalists into a feelgood feminist experience.
“Bombshell” really could have been an atonal disaster – and there’s no denying that it’s a remarkably apolitical film, considering the toxic nature of the TV company it’s covering. Yet it succeeds, thanks to a combination of star power, smart script and the use of film conventions – recalling Roach’s work on the HBO film “Game Change,” in which he turned the 2008 presidential election race into heady entertainment.
The differing approaches of the TV series and the film are apparent from their opening scenes. “The Loudest Voice” starts on the prone body of Ailes in 2017: It’s not quite “Sunset Boulevard” with the voiceover being delivered by a dead man floating in a swimming pool, but it’s a nice hook to draw us back to 1995 and Ailes’ declaration: “I know what people are going to say about me. I can pretty much pick the words for you: right-wing, paranoid, fat.” He’s not wrong, and his conspiracy-driven paranoia will only increase as the series progresses.
There are only a handful of scenes in the first three or four episodes that don’t feature Ailes, who is played by Russell Crowe in a sinister and more convincing manner than John Lithgow’s rival film portrayal. Perhaps this is unfair, but given some of his own offscreen antics, I didn’t find it too much of a stretch to see Crowe as this menacing, powerful man who thought it OK to "grab women by the pussy" long before a certain other sexual predator came along.
The initial episodes focus on the Fox launch in 1996 (episode one is particularly brilliant), the 9/11 attacks and Iraq War, and the 2008 election race. The woman who ultimately helped bring Ailes down, Gretchen Carlson (played here by Naomi Watts and in the film by Nicole Kidman – which is fortunate for those of us convinced that the Australian actresses are actually one and the same person), only appears from episode three onward.
The main victim of Ailes’ sexual misconduct in the show, Laurie Luhn (Annabelle Wallis), doesn’t even warrant a mention in the film (which works within a far tighter timescale), but she’s a vital character in the series – demonstrating the psychological torture the Fox head inflicted on her and many other women over many, many years (dating all the way back to the 1960s).
Luhn’s omission from the film is countered by the complete absence of former Fox TV star Megyn Kelly from the TV series (save for her name being mentioned occasionally). Sherman explained last year that Kelly “was a peripheral participant in Ailes’ downfall. … Any dramatization that makes her a central character in Ailes’ takedown is pure fiction.” Step forward then, “Bombshell,” which places Kelly (played by Charlize Theron) front and center, and relegates Ailes to the sidelines – a seemingly commercially astute decision if liberals can stomach being forced to root for “Crazy Megyn.”
The film opens on the August 2015 Republican primary debate in which Kelly called Donald Trump out on whether his treatment of women made him a suitable candidate for the White House. His subsequent treatment of her is a large part of the film’s focus – possibly, some might say, due to the fact that Theron also happens to be one of the film’s producers. Still, unlike Kidman’s turn as Carlson, which always looks like Nicole Kidman pretending to be a TV host, Theron totally convinces as Kelly (so much so that I had to stop myself hissing every time she appeared on screen).
Other women getting star billing in Roach and screenwriter Charles Rudolph’s hugely accessible film are Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie) and Jess Carr (Kate McKinnon). If I were to tell you that Kayla is an evangelical millennial prone to lines like “I don’t want to be on TV; I want to be on Fox,” and Jess is a closet lesbian/Democrat working on Bill O’Reilly’s show (yes, that Bill O’Reilly), you will not be surprised to learn that these characters are fictional creations (and let’s not even think of calling them “composites”).
However, they also give the film its heart, its comedy and its most powerful moments. One particularly nightmarish scene involving Kayla and Ailes in his office left a couple of young women near me sobbing for a full five minutes, demonstrating the particular power of film to tell a greater truth through fiction. No one scene in “Loudest Voice” can match that moment for gut-wrenching horror.
As well as the many times where the film and TV versions diverge – most notably, the importance of Ailes’ executive assistant, Judy Laterza (Aleksa Palladino), in facilitating his behavior, and when a key detail about Carlson is revealed – it is also fascinating to see where they overlap.
For instance, both use the exact same homophobic comment that Ailes says about Rupert Murdoch’s son, James. Both see the showdown that took place between Ailes and another Murdoch son, Lachlan, in the Fox newsroom on 9/11 as a pivotal event. And both present Ailes’ wife, Beth (Connie Britton in the film; Sienna Miller in the series), as a loving partner, either willfully or naively ignorant of her husband’s many sins.
While I would recommend both, “The Loudest Voice” lives longest in the memory and takes the tougher artistic choices: Making the audience cheer for Kelly and Carlson may be too much for some, but it’s still a more palatable option than delving so deeply into the twisted psyche of über-bully Ailes.
Where the TV show has the edge is in its portrayal of Fox TV. While “Bombshell” can’t help but offer up characters like Judge Jeanine Pirro, Kimberly Guilfoyle and Geraldo Rivera for easy laughs, “Loudest Voice” finds little humor in Ailes’ increasingly amoral adventures.
The path the news channel hurtles down after Barack Obama’s election in 2008 is brilliantly depicted, including the decision to focus on what is “newsworthy” as much as what is “news.” And while its drawing of lines between Trump and Ailes is not always subtle – like when the Fox head tells a group of veterans at a 2008 rally that he wants to “Make America great again,” or his constant talk of a “witch hunt” when the harassment allegations start to fly – it is still mightily effective.
Perhaps both projects are best summed up by their closing music tracks. While “Bombshell” goes for a generic “girl-power” song, “The Loudest Voice” opts for John Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth.” Both are apt in the circumstances, but only one resonates with you long afterward.