Mad as Hell takes a look at internet news realist, The Young Turks‘ Cenk Uygur.
by Rob Rector
Cenk Uygur (pronounced Jenk You-ger) may not be a name that easily lodges in the cranium. But for those who have ever witnessed one of his more animated YouTube clips, in which he serves as host of the political commentary show The Young Turks, his personality and charisma are hard to shake.
He’s as bombastic and brazen as the Howard Beale speech of Network, the film’s titular inspiration. Opinionated, frustrated and motivated, Uygur is a Turkish tsunami of energy and is the central focus of Mad as Hell, a documentary that charts the host’s media navigation to his current status as one of the go-to sources of news for the younger, progressive audiences that have abandoned traditional television news for something a little less filtered and independent.
And unlike other internet news celebrities like, say, Glenn Beck or Alex Jones, Uygur is much more fact-driven and grounded in reality, a route that often puts him at odds with traditional Democrats whose views may otherwise align with Uygur’s. It’s also one that costs him many a higher-paying gig at news outlets that admired his passion, but required him to “stick to the script.”
And speaking of scripts, director Andrew Napier could not have penned one more interesting than the real-life turns taken in the Turkish-born Uygur’s own life story. After arrival to the U.S. at the age of 7, Uygur left an impression no matter where he went, as evidenced by the number of friends interviewed here, many of whom have stayed close for decades. The fact that many candidly speak to how abrasive and stubborn he is/was, and yet they maintain a friendship (and even quit their own jobs to work with him) is a testament to how much they respect his passion.
Fresh out of law school, Uygur repeatedly walks away from lucrative gig after lucrative gig, as they did not fit his definition of “justice” and “freedom.” He begins his romance with the airwaves on a shitty cable access channel in Virginia, where he builds a large enough following to embolden him to head to Miami for a “real” television gig, only to be unceremoniously dumped to behind-the-camera duties.
Along the way, he not only acquires friends, but believers. They are not mindless, cult-like masses, as they repeatedly cite his faults, but they realize that Uygur is a man who is perhaps principled to a fault and will leave everything on the battlefield when push comes to shove.
Director Napier, who worked as an intern and then a staffer for The Young Turks noticed this, too, and was given access to some behind-the-scenes moments that document the host’s dances with mainstream popularity (briefly landing a hosting gig on MSNBC, taking his Young Turks show to the now-defunct Current TV).
And as much of the screen Uygur occupies during Mad as Hell, the film truly succeeds as a look into the ever-changing market of news media. The fact that much of the outlets — even those seemingly as “independent” as Current — are sponsor-driven machines demonstrates just how much we have to call into question the news we consume. This is what Uygur had been preaching throughout his arc in the film. Each hosting job he took brought him closer to the freedom he had with his internet-only show, but they were still tied to the strings of companies and corporations that wanted to see and hear news that brought about profit.
Regardless of whether you cozy to Uygur’s politics, Mad as Hell proves that much has changed in the media landscape since he’s been in it, but just like Howard Beale’s seminal speech almost a half-century ago, there’s much that can resonate in those who refuse to stay seated and not take it anymore.