Benedict Cumberbatch Brings His Signature Madness to 'Brexit'

A new TV film starring Benedict Cumberbatch shows how the British got themselves into the Brexit morass – and has lessons for any country facing an election

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Benedict Cumberbatch in "Brexit."
Benedict Cumberbatch in "Brexit."Credit: Screenshot from HBO's Youtube channel
Simon Spungin
Simon Spungin

A now-defunct British insurance group coined a rather clever advertising slogan in the 1980s: We won’t make a drama out of a crisis, it promised. “Brexit: The Uncivil War,” a British television movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the architect of the Leave campaign’s victory in the 2016 referendum, can proudly boast that it does just that.

Based on two recent books about the British people’s decision to leave the European Union, “Brexit: The Uncivil War” covers the events leading up to the vote through the eyes of Dominic Cummings – a political advisor and strategist, who was previously best known for his 240-page essay titled “Some thoughts on education and political priorities,” which outlined his vision for transforming Britain into a “meritocratic technopolis.”

The movie, written by James Graham, is a dramatic retelling of Cummings’ revolutionary campaign. It begins with Cummings facing a future public enquiry into possible illegal methods during the campaign. Although fictional, of course, that’s not a far-fetched eventuality; several individuals and groups are already being investigated for just such infractions.

From the outset, it is clear that Cummings has some pretty avant-garde ideas on how to win the referendum. Devoid, it seems, of ideological leanings, he is free to focus on the campaign. He turns political wisdom on its head by rejecting all of the accepted norms; he turns attack into defense, uses his opponents’ strengths to undermine them and, most significantly, he is open to the use of new technology to win votes.

In retrospect, the Brexit referendum of June 2016 was a dress rehearsal for the election of Donald Trump less than six months later. The tactics employed by the Leave campaign were already being used by Trump and his team, but the big breakthrough was the use of micro-targeted advertising on social media. In other words, finding out what frightens undecided voters and bombarding them with messages on Facebook that reinforce their fears and prod them in whatever direction the instigator desires. In the case of Brexit, millions of people were sent very simple messages, reinforcing their fear of mass immigration from Turkey and the loss of control over British sovereignty.

In one telling scene, we are introduced to billionaire Republican mega-donor Robert Mercer at the London studio of Breitbart News. Mercer explains to Nigel Farage and Arron Banks, two prominent but archaic anti-EU campaigners that, “Money is one thing, but data is power.”

Mercer goes on to say that, using “behavioral micro-targeting, finding where the voters you can convert are, and knowing the messages that will convert them” is the key to winning any election. This is exactly the tactic that Cummings adopts, using a database provided by a Canadian political consultancy and technology company, AggregateIQ, which itself has been linked to Cambridge Analytica. A 2017 British news investigation into Cambridge Analytica aired footage of its CEO, Alexander Nix, bragging that his company had worked on over 200 elections across the world and that it routinely used honey traps, bribery stings and prostitutes for opposition research.

In his anti-establishment zeal and his crusade to bring down the elites that have run British politics for decades, Cummings unleashed a host of demons that the United Kingdom is still struggling to come to terms with. And, by the end, he appears crushed by the weight of what he has wrought.

Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Cummings is excellent. He taps into the borderline madness that he displayed in “Sherlock” and “Patrick Melrose,” even if much of it sounds more oratorical than conversational. That is no doubt because much of the screenplay was based on interviews with Cummings, which, on the flipside, infuses the character’s lines with authenticity.

Almighty omnishambles

But what makes “Brexit: The Uncivil War” work is the sharp writing of Graham, who is known as one of Britain’s leading political dramatists. He has several Westminster-based plays to his name – including “Labour of Love,” an unlikely rom-com about the upheavals within the British Labour Party, and “Monster Raving Loony,” the story of novelty politician and musician, Screaming Lord Sutch.

Graham’s 90-minute movie is peppered with the kind of wry aside and sardonic putdown that we have come to expect from a British writer. Comic relief is offered in the form of Nigel Farage, the buffoonish and much-ridiculed leader of the far-right UKIP party, and his billionaire benefactor and British-bulldog-bully Arron Banks. Incidentally, Banks is also being investigated for campaign violations.

The movie has been criticized for oversimplifying the Brexit debate, but this is unfair. Its mission is not to document the entire process, but to shine a light on the most important ramification – not of the referendum itself, but how it was won. The issues raised are those which will have a negative impact on every democracy in the world for decades to come.

No post-Brexit election can be viewed without referring to Cummings and his revolutionary campaign methods. Frighteningly, both Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ already have (alleged) Israeli ties.

“Brexit: The Uncivil War” is an imperfect movie, to be sure. It gets away with investing zero effort in every single character apart from Cummings because most viewers already know who the main protagonists are. It gets away with being predominantly white and male because that is an accurate reflection of British establishment politics. It has everything a newsy political thriller needs: an intriguing lead character, played by an exceptional actor; a strong script; subject matter that will continue to dominate Britain for a generation or more; and an audience thirsty for some explanation of how their country has found itself in the middle of such an almighty omnishambles – to borrow a phrase from much-loved British satire “The Thick of It.”

Already available in the U.S. through HBO and in the U.K. on Channel 4’s streaming service, we can only hope that, ahead of the April 9 election here in Israel, it will be made available to Israeli viewers.

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