BREXIT: AN UNCIVIL WAR tells the behind-the-scenes tale of how Leave came to win the 2016 referendum vote. Benedict Cumberbatch takes on the central role of Dominic Cummings, the lead campaign strategist for the Leave Campaign.
While his performance can’t be faulted, the focus on Cummings lets down this 90 minute drama. It suggests that Cummings genius guerrilla politics were the sole reason for Leave success. He wasn’t afraid to modernise by using Aggregate IQ, a data mining company, to send out billions of targeted ads and create clever repeated rhetoric (Take back control!) that appeals to the heart while ignoring inconvenient facts.
At times, it felt like Cumberbatch merely switched one role as a highly functioning sociopath with contempt for those who he sees below him for another. Cummings even claims to be hear the “hum” of Britain which gives him clues on where to lead the campaign next, going as far as to press his ear to the ground to better hear it.
Uncivil War is littered with these odd metaphorical scenes. In one, Cummings sees his rival Remain campaigner Craig Oliver (Rory Kinnear) across the tracks of Moorgate Underground platform. They end up at a pub to discuss the long term implications of the toxic divides that they have cemented: Leave vs Remain, Heart vs Head, New Politics vs Old Politics. The questions raised are important, but the delivery often feels patronising.
With the campaign and its strategists at the heart of it, the implication is that an entire nation was swayed by rhetoric thought up by intellectual strategist - including its politicians. For example, Boris Johnson (Richard Goulding) is depicted as little more than Eurosceptic buffoon who was swept along in something he didn’t quite understand until it was much too late, ignoring the fact that he is a shrewd politician in his own right.
It’s even worse for Arron Banks (Lee Boardman) and Nigel Farage (Paul Ryan), not only sidelined to creating their own Leave.EU campaign but also to caricatures, arriving in helicopters at posh country houses, sipping champagne while looking up at the stars and drumming up racist anti-immigration sentiments.
The focus on Cummings and the Leave Campaign is important. As the drama explains, they have been found to have broken electoral law. However, this focus leaves out one important element: the voters themselves. We only catch glimpses of them throughout Brexit: An Uncivil War despite providing some of the more powerful scenes.
In the last focus group, with emotions high, it becomes apparent that voters’ motives went beyond remaining in or leaving the EU - it was a demand for change in the political landscape of the UK itself.
In the end, even Cummings is placed on their level: hopeful for genuine change and let down by the current system’s inability to deliver it.
In portraying how Leave won the referendum, Brexit: An Uncivil War fails to answer the more powerful question: why. In doing so, while interesting, its delivery falls flat.
- Watched on Channel 4. 07/01/2019