Film review: Brexit: The Uncivil War

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Friday, February 1st. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Megan Basham says a new movie about Brexit is engaging, but still doesn’t quite get it right.

CLIP: [Brexit montage]

MEGAN BASHAM, TELEVISION CRITIC: While not as balanced as advertised, HBO’s new movie, Brexit: The Uncivil War, offers fascinating insight into the seismic political shifts causing earthquakes not just in Great Britain, but across the Western world.

CLIP: In a different branch of history, I was never here. Some of you voted differently and this never happened. But I was and it did. Everyone knows who won. But not everyone knows how.

The film focuses almost wholly on a man named Dominic Cummings, director of the successful Vote Leave campaign. Brash and uncouth, Cummings manages to offend nearly every established political player on both sides of the aisle.

CLIP: I think what Dom means — Some of us have been waiting a lifetime to get to this point. Not to have it ruined by some geeky anarchist who wants to show off. I just want to get us over the line. Something that MPs have failed to do since this movement began over 40 years ago. Excuse me.

Sound familiar?

Also familiar: accusations that Cummings’ slogan “Take Back Control” foments racism and that underhanded conspiring with data mining companies allows his side to pull out a win.

The film gives us a complex, even likeable character in Cummings. Benedict Cumberbatch excels at playing cantankerous control freaks who nonetheless win sympathy for their excellent work. Cummings fits right in with previous Cumberbatch roles like Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Strange.

CLIP: Does he not know there are things you do not do?! Does he always have to be so, you know, himself?!  

And I should note that Cummings has a profane vocabulary to go along with his confrontational personality. That said, if Richard Nixon’s secret tapes and Dick Cheney and Joe Biden’s hot mic moments are anything to go by, the movie’s foul language is probably realistic.

Though the film strives to show us that Cummings has redeeming qualities, refraining from villainizing is not the same thing as offering a truly fair shake. We’re never clear, as we are with the Remainers, whether he really believes in what he’s selling. The most we hear from him in terms of ideology is “Change is exciting.”

CLIP: Seriously you don’t worry about long-term repercussions You are feeding a toxic culture where nobody can trust or believe anything. How convenient you had them to do your dirty work for you.

The fundamental theme of the movie is that to resist the ever-forward march toward global identity is toxic. The film paints other public figures on the Brexit side, like Nigel Farage, as buffoons. And the ultimate result of the Brexit vote comes across as tragic.

CLIP: Mr. Cummings, if you are the unknown soldier in all this, the real puppet master and we’re all living in the future you have imagined for us… This isn’t my future.

More frustrating, by giving Cummings so much credit, the story ironically makes the same mistake as those Remain campaigners who disregarded the grievances of so many forgotten citizens. Because of this, the movie is instructive in spite of itself.

There’s little doubt that power brokers inside campaigns like to imagine themselves, like Sherman McCoy in Bonfire of the Vanities, as great Masters of the Universe. As movers of men. And it would be foolish to think their work doesn’t help move the needle. But it’s an illusion of real control.

The film misses the glaring lesson presented by the dispirited and disgruntled blue collar characters we briefly meet while Cummings is canvassing for voters. If enough of those supposedly uneducated, uninfluential, unimportant people that the governing elite deem so backward get together, they will eventually succeed in changing the direction of the national ship.

Whether it’s AggregateIQ or Cambridge Analytica or unknown Russian operations, it’s convenient to blame the unseen wizards behind the code for delivering victory via technological sleight of hand. But that doesn’t explain why the same kind of previous non-voters who turned out for Brexit turned out for Donald Trump. It doesn’t explain the yellow vests in France or National Front in Germany.

What such rationalizations ultimately convey, as we see playing out in Brexit now, is that the people didn’t mean it. They didn’t understand what they were voting for and were only driven to pull certain levers because the right buzzwords were targeted at them on the right social media platform. Thus, their will can be ignored.

If anything is destroying the ideal of self-governance, it isn’t Cummings or Trump or anyone else smashing the old rules of campaigning.

It is this.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Megan Basham.


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