As is the case for all contentious biographical dramas, a series about Fox News’ founding CEO cannot simply operate as a vanity project.
Russell Crowe is about to make a particularly controversial leap into a new leading role, and this time he is headed to the small screen in his premiere US television venture. Deadline reports that Showtime’s limited series about Roger Ailes has tapped Crowe to star as the Fox News Channel’s founding CEO, a role that is set to be memorable if utterly divisive.
Crowe will portray Ailes in the eight-episode series, formerly titled Secure and Hold: The Last Days of Roger Ailes. While Showtime has yet to confirm a new name, the series may aspire to be a no holds barred approach to Ailes’ life. Not only will it be based on Gabriel Sherman’s bestselling Ailes biography “The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News — and Divided a Country,” but it will also draw inspiration from Sherman’s extensive reporting on the sexual harassment allegations leveled at the television executive, which resulted in Ailes’ eventual ousting from Fox News. Sherman himself also served as co-writer on Showtime’s pilot alongside Spotlight’s Tom McCarthy, with the latter putting together a writers’ room to flesh out the series.
Deadline details that specific moments in Ailes’ career will be of particular interest in the Crowe-Showtime project, although I struggle to call them highlights. An overarching plot point will be borne out of the media titan’s career at Fox News, which notoriously jettisoned the channel beyond run-of-the-mill news reporting into more opinionated, right-wing fare. Ailes can be credited as the main driving force behind the politicization of cable news as a whole, bringing a talk show mentality to journalism which echoes his days working on The Mike Douglas Show.
Ailes’ methods in his rise to success were, according to Sherman’s book, vengeful and unsavory. But they also definitely proved to be highly successful ratings-wise, judging from the fact that Fox News maintains an iron grip on conservative viewership to this day (as much as 40% of Donald Trump’s voters has cited Fox News as a primary source of coverage).
Unsurprisingly, Showtime’s limited series will then use Ailes’ story to discern the political narratives and circumstances that resulted in the Trump presidency. The show will evidently draw together multiple points of view and take place across a wide breadth of Ailes’ life, inclusive of flashbacks to his career beginnings in order to “shed light on the psychology that drives the political process from the top down.”
Finally, there will be references to the sexual harassment accusations that had a damning impact on Ailes’ career at Fox (although he did eventually set up shop as Trump’s advisor after his expulsion). The timeline of events purported in these allegations – some of which date back as early as the 1960s – indicates that we can expect harassment to play an insidiously present role in the Showtime series.
With even the most basic rundown of Ailes’ career and accompanying distasteful nature, the exec is already obviously primed to be Crowe’s most villainous role to date. In actuality, playing Ailes proves noteworthy as Crowe’s recent filmography hasn’t really been filled with the most interesting or even challenging material.
Crowe’s onscreen life began to suffer after Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood. He was not necessarily robbed of any iconic roles, but they were insipid depictions at best. Crowe got to (badly) portray Inspector Javert in Les Miserables, play Superman’s father in a tiresome Man of Steel, and whitewash the eponymous biblical figure in Noah. The Nice Guys eventually inspired a moment of rejuvenation in Crowe’s filmography, but the Shane Black action comedy was followed up by War Machine and The Mummy, and neither film was particularly well-received.
None of these roles especially recall Crowe’s glory days of Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind. That being said, to assume that playing Ailes would only serve as a decent onscreen comeback for him would be fairly irresponsible, too, considering the fact that playing such a contentious real-life figure inherently carries with it a high level of accountability. Or at least, it should.
Showtime’s Ailes project does feel dicey, especially so in the climate of #MeToo. Allegations against Ailes preceded the movement by a few years. However, they do come under further deserved scrutiny in a climate of heightened awareness of the duplicitous reality of harassment and exploitation within the entertainment industry.
Our own Purcell Liddy has highlighted some suspicions about several Harvey Weinstein-related projects that are currently in the works. The worst-case scenario would be for this Showtime venture to actualize those same concerns as well. The series shouldn’t just cover the exploits of a different monster devoid of a wider context, no matter how reportedly game-changing their accomplishments have been.
At the very least, Sherman’s incisive coverage of Ailes and McCarthy’s onscreen track record of commendably conscientious filmmaking in movies such as Spotlight could provide a solid backbone for the Crowe-Showtime project. Ensuring that the story will be told from multiple perspectives is commendable too.
It’s also a good thing that the series won’t be the only production based on Ailes’s downfall in the works. We learned last month that Charlize Theron and director Jay Roach would be joining forces to bring their own Ailes movie to the big screen; Theron is set to play Megyn Kelly who was reportedly also harassed by Ailes.
Moreover, there will be a documentary about the exec from Alex Gibney, the director behind incisive documentaries such as Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. Biographical projects about such contentious people aren’t new in the industry by far. However, with a subject like Ailes, the commitment to tell socially responsible narratives must be paramount.