In 2016, the Brits had their own electoral disaster before we did, remember? It happened just months before the catastrophe that struck the U.S. and it was called Brexit. The UK is still reeling from the impact and as of this moment, headed toward a potential calamity as the exit from the EU date rapidly approaches with no deal in place. But it all started when former Prime Minister David Cameron decided to hold a referendum on Britain exiting the European Union nearly three years ago, after just barely winning the other ill-advised referendum that would have seen Scotland leaving the U.K.
Perhaps loaded with hubris after that victory, or for whatever other reason, Cameron called the referendum vote and this new Channel 4/HBO movie is about the campaign that followed. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Dominic Cummings, the former strategist on the outs with the Tories, who’s hired by a lobbyist to head the “Leave” campaign, and who employed new data firms that were eager to test their technology to locate and target potential new voters through social media. A lot of this was backed by the shady American billionaire Robert Mercer (Trump’s biggest donor) and the even shadier consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which was retroactively discovered to have infiltrated the Leave campaign and conspired to break Britain’s electoral laws in the lead-up to the vote. The movie, written by James Graham and directed by Toby Haynes, is a fast-paced, entertaining look at the behind the scenes of how Cummings worked the new means of voter targeting and spearheaded the new politics comprised of stirring up anger, racism and fear in the people, a strategy that worked alarmingly well in turning voters out.
You can hear echoes in the familiar arguments being had with our cousins across the pond in focus group sessions that turn nasty as voters scream at each other and white people freak out at being called racist, even though the biggest driver of this “economic anxiety” (sound familiar?) is fear of immigrants crossing into the UK, particularly 70 million people from Turkey, a complete lie that complements other lies that are thrown on the sides of buses in ads that reach millions of voters. The arguments for and against staying in the EU aren’t breached in detail, but it’s clear that the Remain campaign was lying down on the job, completely taken off guard by the hostility stirred up in an electorate made up of a lot of angry and unsatisfied citizens (and others who didn’t bother to vote at all- another massive oversight on the part of the government to sound the alarm). As an American, I couldn’t get into the details of why the EU coalition is so important, but the movie makes it clear that the biggest driver of dissatisfaction is not so different from what drove the Trump voters over here, as a Labour Party MP was murdered in her own district by a racist with ties to a U.S. based Neo-Nazi group a week before the referendum. The movie also shows the indifference of spotlight hogging politicians like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson who didn’t hesitate to act as agitators with no regard for the consequences, as both fled from responsibility in dealing with the aftermath.
There’s something about Cumberbatch that makes him excel at playing smug, superior geniuses who lord their abilities over everyone around them, so casting him as this guy who’s simply out to “shake things up” was the obvious and perfect choice. He carries the film effortlessly as we’re taken on the unpleasant ride that was the Brexit campaign, but as watchable as the film is, you can’t help but feel the sense of doom as no one knows even now know how this story plays out, something we’re told specifically in the ending title cards. Was it too soon to make a movie about this, given the unknowable conclusion? Perhaps. But for anyone who wants to know more about what exactly happened over there, this is a good start. I’m sure there will be more to come.