The centerpiece of Sidney Lumet’s 1976 Oscar-winning film Network is when former news anchor Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch, is exploited by TV executives because his growing madness means ratings, and he tells viewers to scream, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore,” out their windows. The title Mad as Hell is meant to evoke that very line, and be a subtle nudge about one of the themes that Paddy Chayefsky inferred to in his screenplay that mainstream media has become more obsessed with profit and ratings than doing the news right and for the benefit of informing people. A lot of people like to name check Chayefsky, and quote Network, but few people stick their heads out that window and yell, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
Mad as Hell wants to make you think that Cenk Uygur is the only guy crazy enough to pick up Howard Beale’s baton. The man who created The Young Turks, the world’s most watched web-based news cast, sees himself as the last angry man, the only man left who will tell truth to power. Uygur may see himself as Beale-esque, but director Andrew Napier seems to have a different fictional news anchor in mind, and sadly, it’s Will McAvoy, the character played by Jeff Daniels in HBO’s The Newsroom. That’s fine by me. I mean, who doesn’t want to be the guy that saved the news media from itself, but is the documentary and the documentarian maybe giving its subject too much credit?
Mad as Hell tracks Uygur from his first brush with TV lights as a law student when he appeared on the CNN show Burden of Proof. He became a corporate lawyer with the skills to go far in that field, but his passion was television and soon he made the cable access show that he had started in Arlington, VA his full-time job. Guess what it was called? Of course, cable access doesn’t pay, and after a whirl in legitimate television with a station in Miami, Uygar set out for L.A. to build what would be the Young Turks empire.
Without a doubt, Cenk Uygur is a compelling character, and he certainly deserves credit for knowing when to take big risks with himself and his brand, even when it’s the more difficult path. An early adopter to streaming video, he turned down more money to stay with Sirius satellite radio because they wanted him to drop the video component. When YouTube launched it became the instant home of The Young Turks, and the show started to build an audience that would take it to over a billion views. YouTube is now ubiquitous if you want to do anything video related on the internet, but it takes vision, or luck, or both, to be one of the first people to see the value.
The part of the film that works best is when it follows Uygur’s attempt to secure a prime time spot on MSNBC. Even though Uygur is a titan of the new media, he still yearns for the acceptance and the standing of the mainstream media, and he lobbies hard for some vacant real estate by subbing for other hosts and getting a temporary show on the network while still balancing his Young Turks responsibilities. It’s fascinating to see Uygur, the last angry man as it were, the man who once proudly say, “I didn’t want to take down Chris Matthews, he made me do it,” now throw his show to Matthews saying, “Hardball, which is excellent, starts now,” just to get a shot at being, in his mind, a player.
Of course, Uygur never gets his permanent spot on the MSNBC line-up, and turns down a weekend show to go back to Young Turks full-time. The reason why was because the softer Uygur was still too hard for the network brass, even though that’s exactly what they wanted. That should teach one both about the general confusion of the suits in charge, and the silliness of the way modern news organizations are run. The Young Turks do get a proper TV home on Al Gore’s Current TV, which was later sold to Al Jazeera English and thus forced Uygur and Co. back to the internet again. The lesson of the day? We keep saying we want a different type of news media, but when it’s presented to us, it’s soundly rejected.
Mad As Hell is a rare opportunity to use the life story of Cenk Uygur to say something about the modern media culture, but instead, it’s kind of about the awesomeness of Uygur, how he put together his Ocean’s 11 like team of media upstarts and rocked the so-called squares in their ivory tower, despite the fact that the man leading the revolution longed to have a corner office in one of those very same towers. The documentary does have great energy though, and if you’re unfamiliar with The Young Turks, this is probably a good introduction to the outlet. And hey, if you scroll over to YouTube and click “subscribe” on the Young Turks channel, then I guess it’s mission: accomplished for Mad as Hell.
Mad as Hell believes in the power of Cenk Uygur and the Young Turks, but its supposed commentary on new media vs. old is definitely lacking.