A personality portrait of YouTube pundit Cenk Uygur that lacks its subject's audacity.
Mad As Hell
Loudmouth YouTube news commentator Cenk Uygur has been bum rushing his way through the media for years. With his uninhibited, fiery commentary style as his calling card, he worked his way up from being the host of a crummy public access show, to creating the successful YouTube news show “The Young Turks” (TYT), to being offered a job as the host of his own show on MSNBC. It was Uygur’s ambition and unfiltered rabble-rousing that got him to the top of the media mountain, but his staunch refusal to compromise his vision that compelled him to turn down MSNBC, who requested he go easier on the Obama administration on air. Only on YouTube, a platform that embraces creative liberty and unencumbered content creation, can Uygur speak his mind in earnest with TYT.
A documentary less about Uygur’s raucous political ideals than it is about the makeup of a man whose disruptive nature has kept him out of the limelight, Mad As Hell is a solidly-crafted portrait of a fascinating media outsider. Its biggest problem, though, is that its focus is always either too broad or too narrow to fully absorb us into Uygur’s up-and-down journey through his one-of-a-kind career. The film’s not intimate enough: Uygur always feels at arms-length, and his deepest vulnerabilities never feel fully explored. And the film is too transfixed with its subject’s personality to delve deep enough into the intrigue of the ever-evolving, Wild West media landscape.
Uygur’s passion perpetually rides the line between inspiring and aggravating, and his brashness drives the movie, much like it drove TYT to success. (It’s the most-watched news channel on YouTube with over a billion views, though to be honest I can’t name even one other news channel on YouTube, so take that for what you will.) Director Andrew Napier chose the film’s title as an homage to the Peter Finch’s fed-up newsman in Network, whose on-screen blow-up in that movie is in the same spirit as Uygur’s volcanic on-air diatribes. He’s a man’s man with a strong chin and charisma for days, and he’s undeniably magnetic, but the truth is, in a documentary like this, one can’t help but yearn to see a bit more of his life outside his ongoing crusade. A sweet moment between Uygur and his young son playing outside their home is a refreshing respite from the media mayhem, and more footage of that flavor may have given the film more depth and roundness.
The film plays out like a romance drama, with the lovers being Uygur and YouTube. Before he found the online video juggernaut, he was struggling to find a platform where he could make a real connection with the larger population. TYT found its footing on YouTube and his media presence began to grow, but when he took a temporary gig with the wealthier, shinier platform of MSNBC, he was no longer able to give TYT his all like he had for years. There’s more than a whiff of an infidelity theme in the way Napier presents Uygur’s graduation to the big leagues. When the relationship with MSNBC was severed, and a short-lived stint on Al Gore’s “Current TV” came to an end when the former president sold the network to Al Jezeera, it became clear that his true home would always be online, with TYT. “As we’ve found success, online media has found success,” says Uygur. “It’s a symbiotic relationship.”
The extensive behind the scenes footage at TYT was collected partly during Napier’s time working with the company, a fact that may bother some, but shouldn’t (Napier is no longer with TYT and the group had no say in the final edit). Almost all interviews come from within Uygur’s circle, including childhood friends and colleagues, but none of the interviewees seem to be pulling any punches, sometimes expressing their lack of confidence in Uygur’s strategies and philosophies. But on the whole there’s a pervading sense that the film leans more toward the hagiographic side of the spectrum. Mad As Hell is a slick-looking doc, but its storytelling is decidedly conventional: the talking head interviews serve their purpose, and the backstage footage is interesting, but none of it feels as spontaneous, alive and dangerous as Uygur.