In Mad As Hell, director Andrew Napier looks at the concurrent emergences of personality-based news media and YouTube through the story of talk show host Cenk Uygur. A Turkish immigrant and former law student, Uygur started the progressive news program The Young Turks as a radio show at the onset of the new millennium, which eventually grew into a massive grassroots success as one of the most watched online news shows (in part due to Uygur’s bombastic and fearless temperament as host). The time period featured in the film, from roughly the late ’90s to the present day, provides plenty of rich material for a glimpse into the drastically changing shape of the media, though this is squandered, for the most part, since Napier is more captivated by Uygur’s personal success.
Napier does sporadically include scenes that border on something akin to a corporate exposé, particularly in a passage concerned with Uygur’s brief tenure as a fill-in anchor at MSNBC. A provocative host in any measure, Uygur’s penchant for lambasting people of all political stripes stood in direct conflict with MSNBC’s Democrat-friendly position—and as this didn’t sit well with the cable network, Uygur was subsequently offered a dead-end timeslot on Saturday mornings, though with higher pay. Via behind-the-scenes footage and extensive interviews with the candid Uygur, Napier presents a firsthand account of how a corporate news agency attempts to mold one of their hosts into, essentially, a character on television that must pander to a specific demographic. In what appears as the journalistic version of the struggle between personal art and commerce, Napier effectively delineates Uygur’s long-held and enduring desire to express what people need to hear instead of what they want to hear, but must continue to do so independently rather than be filtered through a corporate mandate.
Yet instead of using Uygur as a means to further an investigation into current media practices, Napier is ultimately too enamored with the man and his convictions that the film hews more closely to being a conventional and one-sided biographical portrait. Aside from some gentle ribbing from a slew of longtime co-workers and friends, as well as a humorously profane scene in which Uygur is being admonished by fellow Young Turks anchors over being disrespectful to a guest on the show, Napier can’t even seem to place his subject in anything other than a worshipful light. And since Uygur is generally the one doing most of the talking in his bellicose manner, Mad As Hell on a structural level succumbs to redundancy. In this sense, the film amounts to little more than an elaborate infomercial, which is more than confirmed by the two indulgent book-ending sequences of The Young Turks office holding a party celebrating Uygur and his online network’s wild success.