Taking its name from the shouted slogan made immortal by Peter Finch’s rogue newsman in the Oscar-winning film “Network,” director Andrew Napier’s documentary “Mad as Hell” chronicles the rise and rise of YouTube news commentator and programmer Cenk Uygur. The Turkish-American commentator is the founder of both a news program and a network named, nodding towards both Uygur’s heritage and his desire to disrupt, The Young Turks.
Uygur is a rabble-rouser, but as Napier’s film tells the story of The Young Turks, you recognize that, all things considered, it’s a documentary with a paralyzingly narrow focus, and one whose bigger question — What is happening to the news as we know it in this age of fractured and freewheeling media?– is shunned in favor of a simpler one: Doesn’t Cenk Uygur seem like a great guy?
Following Uygur’s journey through the media — from cable access to a local Miami affiliate to Satellite Radio to the then-new medium of YouTube, from outside rebel to, perhaps, insider with his own show on MSNBC — the affable subject is always standing by ready with a modest but appreciative note about how he could never have believed any of this would ever happen.
It’s that lack of critical thought — or any desire to open up the discussion to include other, similar disruptors with different aims, ideas and execution models — that ultimately turns all of the bombast and bellowing in “Mad as Hell” into nothing more than just muffled shouts from the inside of a sealed echo chamber. Uygur is always talking about the difference between the Young Turks and other news outlets — they’re too beholden to the too-similar Democrats and Republicans, whereas he and his crew will keep telling you the truth — without either demonstrating the collusion and corruption of rival news networks or, for that matter, outlining the “truths” he’s so insistent he tells.
We are told about how The Young Turks news network is the most-watched news program on YouTube; we are never told how much other things are watched on YouTube for comparison. For your edification, The Young Turks have nearly two million YouTube subscribers — or about half as many as “DC Toys Collector,” who unbox toys in a sing-song voice while off camera. A little more messaging, and some context, about the medium would be appreciated. When Uygur gets his shot on MSNBC, he loses it not soon after; he’s told it’s for being “too hard” on the Obama administration, but there’s no comment or participation from anyone on the other side of that firing.
Napier is an ex-employee of Uygur’s empire; he’s directed episodes of the channel’s film review program, “What the Flick” (full disclosure: TheWrap’s Film Reviews Editor Alonso Duralde is a co-host of the show), as well as several shorts with titles like “10 years of the Young Turks?” and ‘Who are the Young Turks?”
And that’s the problem with “Mad as Hell”: it comes across less like an actual documentary you would show to a curious audience than a good-job-everyone piece of internal documentation you’d screen at a company party or to potential outside investors. There will, one day, be an excellent documentary about what happened to news in our lifetime, as three networks became thousands, and then as online video let a million new channels bloom, but that will be a story best told from the outside.
“Mad as Hell” will probably reward fans of Uygur and The Young Turks, but much like the clips we see of Uygur in his full-flowering arm-waving wrath, it’s just sound and fury signifying very, very little.