Feb 6, 2015

[REVIEW] Mad As Hell (Documentary)


NOTE: Review has been edited to include material that was mistakenly left out near the end.

Cenk Uygur is a highly divisive individual, to put it mildly.  You often hear people or things referred to as "you either love them or hate them, there is no middle ground", to the point where these things are cliched.  However, there are some people that fall under that umbrella, and I think Cenk is clearly one of those. His image and personality is so bombastic and in your face and, at times, over the top, that he, himself, has obliterated any middle ground there may be, leaving you with one of two choices.  Accept him or deny him.

Back in late 2012 filmmaker Andrew Napier, formerly an employee of The Young Turks online news show, set up an IndieGoGo campaign to help fund a documentary of Cenk's rise from a small town public access show in Virginia, to where he is now as the leader of the, in the words of Cenk Uygur himself, "Largest Online News Show In The World", a title that is questionable in its accuracy, but one that is run with with a cocksure manner.

Cenk seems to admit that the "Largest Online News Show in the World" is a bit on the untrue side in the documentary, but seems to take that on as a sort of challenge.  Almost like a weird version of George W. Bush's "Catapulting Propaganda" line, where you just keep on saying it until it's true.  Until you really ARE the best.

I mean in hip hop you have rappers saying all the time "We're the best, no one is better than me, who can dare compete with me?" and I don't know anyone that necessarily believes it to be 100% true.  Although, to be fair, this isn't hip hop, this is a news organization that wants to be taken seriously.  At times, despite my being a fan, I think they tend to trip over their own shoes in that endeavor and hurts their cause, including with grandiose declarations that aren't entirely true.

One such braggodocio that I've sort of been annoyed at is the whole "Billion Views on Youtube" and them seeming to equate that with the number of actual people viewing, rather than the number of page views.  I mean I know Google has methods in place to counteract those who try to manipulate the numbers, and their numbers have been verified according to them, however, I don't know anyone who would honestly believe that 1 billion individuals have watched their show.

Also if you look at their top 25 most viewed videos on their channel, you see that there's, being generous, seven videos that are serious news, and the rest are all pop culture, celebrity gossip bullshit videos like Kim Kardashian or that type of ilk.  

So when you say "you're the most viewed online news organization" but the vast majority of your views are coming from nonsense celebrity gossip shit, and not the actual hard news that you definitely also do, I think that also falls under the misleading thing that hurts your credibility.

When Keith Olbermann was excommunicated from Current TV, he apparently threw The Young Turks under the bus, and in the court filings that he made against Current TV, he mentioned how he was against the hiring of Cenk for the network and said, among other things, that Cenk had "difficulty separating facts from things he wanted to be true.".

However, it should be said, that this brash type of attitude is a big part of what makes him popular as well, so I think perhaps in Cenk's mind, it all balances out.  I do worry that he will eventually reach this point, if he hasn't already, where it's Choir Preaching territory.  Where he's simply hit that wall where the only people that he will reach are those who already believe in what he is saying.  Everyone else will simply ignore or dismiss based on either preconceived notions, confirmation bias or whatever the case may be.

Now this probably sounds like I'm not a fan of Cenk's, but I am. I'm a supporter, I'm a paying member (off and on over the years depending on my financial situation) however it's really hard to argue with that.  It's that whole say it until it's true mantra that he embraces that, I think, does his brand harm and makes it easier for people to dismiss him, despite what he is saying about other topics actually being true.  Which is unfortunate.

As I said in the beginning, he's a very divisive "Love Him or Hate Him" kinda guy, no in between.

Prior to watching this documentary I skimmed around online and found a few reviews that seemed to be less than glowing.  The Rotten Tomatoes rating currently stands at around 30%, although it may go up or down a bit as the movie is just being released today officially.   One of the major criticisms of the documentary is that the director, Andrew Napier, is too close to the subject, and that the whole thing comes off as a glorified promo or commercial for Cenk and The Young Turks.

But I think these people miss the point, really, and I think these people don't necessarily understand documentaries.  Namely that there's not a single style or type of documentary out there.  You have the hard hitting expose documentaries, in which you go in and you will sit down with all sides of a debate and you'll have people who are pro or against your topic.  The upcoming Scientology documentary from HBO based on the amazing book "Going Clear" is no doubt like this, as the book was meticulously detailed and researched, and there were interviews with both Scientologists and those who were being criticial of them, and then you could make your decision as to who to believe. 

There are documentaries like the phenomenal "Talk 16/Talk 19" series by Canadian filmmakers Janis Lundman and Adrienne Mitchell that chronicled the everyday lives of five 16 year old girls, and then 3 years later caught up with them and sort of followed up.  In those there is no commentary, no narration, just those girls speaking about their lives in their own words. 

There's no guiding you towards any viewpoint at all, which I found refreshing.

Then there is the Michael Moore type of documentary where he is going in with a clear view of right or wrong and his goal is to make you agree with him.  Love him or Hate him, he's good at what he does.   And then there's the "Mad as Hell" Documentary that is essentially showcasing a subject from his roots to where he is now and how he got there.  I don't think it's making the case that this is an unbiased raw hard look at someone, warts and all. I think this is fairly honest in what it is trying to do, I think Andrew Napier is very upfront and honest about himself and his opinions on the subject, so as I said I don't see anything wrong with that.

The documentary is very well done, and I think that even though it is overwhelming positive and a glowing view of the subject, I disagree with those who say that this is simply a puff piece or a glorified promo, as there are moments in which those close to him question his motives and do have critical thoughts that they voice to the camera, and to Cenk.   I think Cenk might be better served to really consider what some of the criticism is, rather than take his "Okay, that's nice, okay, I hear you, now I'm the Boss so this is how we're doing it" tact that he tends to embrace.

The great advice for those going into business is to surround yourself with people smarter than you are, because these people know things you don't, they know mistakes and pitfalls to avoid.  They've been there and have the knowledge of what to do and not do.  You don't surround yourself with people you respect and then simply nod your head when they tell you serious issues they have and then you just ignore that and do what you want to do.  It IS your company but still.

I also think Cenk came off a bit bad with the situation involving Jill Pike, who was one of the original Turks on The Young Turks.  She wanted more involvement with the political aspects, and Cenk wanted her on the pop culture fluff type stories. 

Maybe I'm wrong, and the whole of information that I have on that situation with Pike, other than me knowing she used to be on the show but is no longer a part of it, is what I saw in this documentary, however I really got the impression that Cenk wanted a pretty attractive woman to do the bullshit nonsense stories, and to leave the politics up to the men who know that type of stuff.  It honestly came off like he just did not have the faith in Jill, as a woman, to do the serious stories, and almost had a Ron Burgundy like sexist response of "No, no, no, this is what you do, and this over here is what WE do."  And then, when she decides to take a job in DC to do what she loves, more serious stories, he doesn't seem to like that, and then he replaces her with Ana Kasparian, who was at that time an intern, and to this day, she 99% does just the second half stories which are predominantly sex type stories and porn related and whatever.

The quality of stories in the second hour are a lot better than they were in the beginning of the show, and there are some fascinating stories she covers, but no one confuses the first and the second hours of the show.  The first hour is the serious one and it's almost all men, and the second one is where they bring in the attractive women to do the stories about porn stars, or Japanese Sex Robots or whatever, along with a male co-host, either Cenk or Ben or Jimmy Dore, or whoever the first hour holdovers are on that particular day.

Being a long time listener of the show I can sense Ana's frustration, and this is not from the documentary, but from recent weeks, in which she kind of vents her feelings about how there are those who write in in the comments of the Youtube videos about her and how she's only there because of her looks and "her boobs" and whatnot.  To be clear I don't necessarily think that she's only there because of her looks.  She's more than qualified to do  these stories, and I think she would make  a great host that can do serious stories as well.  I DO however believe that to say that her attractiveness plays no role whatsoever in her being on is ludicrous and I don't think she would even argue with that.  It's not the only reason, and it shouldn't be used as a way to dismiss her or diminish her contributions, although it has been by ignorant mouthbreathing knuckledraggers, but I think just like any woman in any industry that relies on being the face of something, your appearance matters.

Just like NFL sideline reporters, often after they get to a certain age, they're pushed out in favor of the prettier, younger, perkier options.  It sucks but it's how it is.

EDIT: I wanted to clarify that there are instances of Ana or other women co-anchoring the 1st hour, particularly when Cenk is away on other business, however for the most part, the 1st hour is overwhelmingly male dominated, while the second "lighter" hour, has I would say a predominantly, not not overwhelmingly female makeup.

All in all, this was a very informative documentary, if you are interested in learning more about Cenk's rise from humble beginnings to the level that he's at now.  It doesn't go quite as deep as it could, and I agree with those in the "What the Flick" review, when they pointed out that it would have been nice to have had some insight into how his turning down the multi-million dollar deal with MSNBC resonated with his wife Wendy, considering they just had a kid recently.  In fact, there's hardly any interviews with Wendy.  I would have liked to have heard her thoughts on some of the decisions Cenk had made over the years that seemed insane, and then things turned out okay, such as turning down the Sirius XM deal, or the aforementioned MSNBC deal.

That said, while it's not a perfect documentary, it's more than up to the task of telling the story of the subject and presenting him in the light that the filmmaker wanted.   I'm not a film guy, I'm not a professional auteur or anything, so I can't speak on the editing and direction and whatnot.  I'm simply a fan of the Young Turks and Cenk Uygur (despite how I may have come off above) despite his blemishes, and imperfections.

In that respects, I consider myself aligned with TYT employee Mark Register who was featured in the documentary as someone that had a lot of doubts about not only some of the things that Cenk was saying, but also expressing doubts about decisions that he made.  And yet, despite that, he's someone that looks up to Cenk and seems to be inspired by him.

That's not a bad way to be, I don't think.  You can be a friend, you can be a supporter, and not be 100% in favor of what they say and do.

The documentary could have done a bit more, I think, when covering the Occupy protests that Cenk took part in a bit, as well as the Wolf-Pac project that Cenk and TYT have spearheaded, to get money out of politics.   I think that's a very worthwhile effort, even if I am extremely hesitant to believe that it will work.  I just think that those in power have too much to lose in order to allow this to ultimately succeed.  I know they've gotten California, I know they've gotten Vermont and some other states, but I just cannot believe that the multi-billionaires are simply going to sit back and do nothing about this.

I agree that the politicians would probably prefer money out of politics (or at least most of them) because they don't like sitting around and raising money all the time.  That said, if anyone thinks the Koch Brothers or Shelden Adelson who are used to buying their way into the government, are just gonna throw their hands up and say "well, damn, it was a good run" and just allow a constitutional amendment to go forward...well, with all due respect to Cenk and those at TYT that are working hard on this absolutely important issue, that's really freaking naive.

Having said that, I was surprised by how little of Wolf-Pac was included in the documentary, and I don't know if that was by design, or if that was just starting up around the time that the documentary was wrapping.

I understand that the doc was coming up on a wrap date, and then Current TV was sold to Al Jazeera and then Napier extended the shooting to cover that aftermath.  If I'm wrong on what subject it was that extended the filming, someone let me know in the comments and I will correct it, however I'm 90% sure it was the Al Jazeera purchasing Current TV that got the filming delayed longer than expected.

Final thoughts on this:  I liked it. I really did, I learned a lot about Cenk that I did not know, it was cool seeing the old footage of Cenk on the public access show and seeing the transformation to now.  People complaining about it being too "friendly" with Cenk, I think are looking for things to criticize, quite frankly.  The documentary doesn't present itself as anything other than what it is, and if you came into this expecting something else, then maybe that blame doesn't lie on Napier or Cenk, it lies with you.

I think that if you are already a fan of Cenk and the Young Turks, then you should definitely check out this documentary, now available on Video on Demand on iTunes, Vimeo , Amazon Instant Video and Google Play, as well as in limited theatrical locations across the country.

If you're not a fan of Cenk Uygur, I wouldn't go in expecting to see some big expose that's gonna reveal his radical agenda that he's a Mouthy Muslim who needs a nose job (inside joke) , but you will find an entertaining presentation of a figure, who love him or hate him, you gotta respect the journey he has taken from where he first started to where he is now.

You have to respect that, even if you don't respect the man's political views.

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