Brexit: The Uncivil War
Director - Toby Haynes
Cast - Benedict Cumberbatch, Rory Kinnear,
Rating - 4/5
The new HBO film Brexit: The Uncivil War is a timely and ultimately terrifying companion piece to the recent Netflix documentary, The Great Hack - a tremendously entertaining look inside the controversial new strategies that were behind two of the greatest political upsets of our times.
A heavily made-up Benedict Cumberbatch plays the enigmatic Dominic Cummings, the chief strategist behind the Vote Leave campaign of the 2016 EU referendum, and as of last week, the newly appointed special advisor to Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Watch the Brexit: The Uncivil War trailer here
To fundamentally reshape society, said an expert in The Great Hack’s most unnerving scene, it must first be dismantled. Only then can it be moulded into what one needs it to be. And that was the driving philosophy behind Cummings’ campaign, in which he used public misinformation, loss of national identity and fear-mongering, to help pull off an unexpected victory, against all odds.
He took inspiration from the likes of Napoleon, Otto von Bismarck and Alexander the Great, even though he wasn’t really a politician at all. In fact, the film portrays him not as a Marvel villain but almost as an anarchist, a disrupter in the vein of Mark Zuckerberg from The Social Network.
At the end of the film, despite pulling off the impossible, there is an emptiness about him, which almost seems to suggest that he is slightly dejected at the success of his massive social experiment. The average person, he seems to realise in that moment, turned out to be just as gullible as he’d always imagined.
This isn’t a story about the right versus the left, a campaign member says in the film; it is about the old versus the new. Cummings was against the notion of ‘right wing thugs’ commandeering the campaign - indeed, Johnson, and especially Nigel Farage, are shown as first class buffoons in the film - and therefore took it upon himself to maintain an element of class in the proceedings. Which is perhaps why, in several scenes, his presence is emphasised with the use of classical music. Something grand is underway, the film suggests, and it might very well have been.
And his most inspired contribution to this historic movement was to enlist the aid of a company named AggregateIQ, and later, famously, Cambridge Analytica, which was instrumental in getting Donald Trump elected as the President of the United States. Both campaigns utilised cutting-edge data harvesting techniques to compile massive banks of information on every individual voter, usually by deeply unethical means.
While the opposition is shown embarking down a more traditional route, which includes making phonecalls, passing out flyers, and presenting hard facts, Cummings is in the process of ‘rewriting the matrix’ of political campaigning. One of the ways in which he gathers data, as opposed to the focus groups the opposition is conducting, is by bombarding Facebook users with football-themed ads, in an effort to gauge how likely they are to be swayed by concepts such as easy money and attractive slogans.
And so he comes up with the rallying cry ‘take back control’, implying that something that the average citizen has always been entitled to has been wrenched from their hands.
Whether or not if any of this is true is beyond me, but there is something distressingly cynical about the story, which is perhaps fitting for the times we live in. Cummings could have chosen either side, but he made a decision, didn’t he?
The film definitely tries to absolve him of his actions. In its final scene, Cumberbatch delivers a stirring monologue about the shortsightedness of politicians, and about how both sides are limited by their unambitious thinking. This is, as he says, an elaborate process that is nowhere near its end. Perhaps Cummings’ reputation as the mastermind behind Brexit will also evolve as the years go by.