Monday evening saw the airing on Channel 4 of James Graham’s Brexit: The Uncivil War, staring Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings, the brains behind Vote Leave. Graham is one of the country’s leading playwrights with a penchant for political plays – his play This House was one of the mostly highly praised and successful political plays of all time.
As with his previous works, Graham spent huge amounts of time interviewing the parties involved and portrayed in Brexit: The Uncivil War. For it is a drama; the events that happen in it are true, but of course dramatic license has been taken with the script and the characterisations. Graham tends to explore contemporary political events via historically similar ones – This House was as much about the minority Labour government of the 70s it focused on, as it was the coalition government of 2010. Given the contemporary nature of this topic however, the opening titles are the history of the UK and the EU from 1940 onwards. This background becomes important as the film goes on and the realisation of Craig Oliver, played by Rory Kinnear, as to why Remain is going to lose.
At their heart Brexit and Brexit: The Uncivil War are both the story of a small group of rebels, both within and without the Establishment, that keeps hitting at it until it finds a way of beating it. It does so by tapping into the larger discontent with the status quo that the Establishment represents and has become to be seen by many as arrogant and destructive. The opening in Tate Britain and the subsequent use of offices in Parliament wonderfully reflect this insider outside duopoly that was Vote Leave, as opposed to the immigrant bashing, rabble rousing, nouveau riche of UKIP, Farage and Arron Banks, that was seen as toxic to winning Brexit and convincing the swing voters of it.
The plan to hire Dominic Cummings, a man who would burn the State around him, to lead the campaign is hatched in front of the painting The Death of Major Peirson, a symbolic shot if ever there was one. This short scene is laden with symbolism and allegory that goes right to the heart of the referendum. The painting depicts the death of Peirson as the armies of Britain defend Jersey, part of Britain since the last invasion of 1066, from a French invasion in 1781. The idea of the noble hero dying in the midst of his victory was one that became intrinsic to the British State, Empire and thus Establishment. This is a shot that speaks to the Establishment, its myths and history, all the while the plotters, part of the Establishment, are planning to beat the wider Establishment and beat back Europe – re the French in the painting. Again the duopoly of the position of Vote Leave; make no mistake Vote Leave was an Establishment vehicle, a small part of the Establishment though it was.
Much of the underlying story Brexit: The Uncivil War focuses on is about Cummings’ working out the tag line that will encompass the campaign. As he say’s: ‘What’s the message?’ That’s what this is about. Leave won due to its messaging. It was strong, active, about no longer being ignored and the EU being made the symbol of peoples’ dejection and feeling of being forgotten, whether it was the EU’s fault or not. It’s about people being made to feel they can ‘take back control’ if they just vote for Brexit, a mythical control though it may be. Control of your future, money, decisions. Its empowering compared to the passive line of the Remain campaign’s ‘Stronger In’ and its use of outdated messaging from the 1990s on the economy, all of which allowed it to be dubbed project fear by Vote Leave.
Cummings is able to overcome the Remain playbook from the 90s with the help of social media and the data mining of it. He may have to fight with MPs, like Bill Cash and Bernard Jenkins, to run the campaign in the new digital space, but he does so and they find 3million disaffected non-voters that Remain don’t even know exist. That’s 3 million more potential voters they can target with some 1 billion adverts. The power and accuracy of this data mining is immense and deeply concerning, as we have seen since the campaign with the Cambridge Analytic scandal.
Remain is left fighting the referendum by the old playbook centered on the economy, institutions and experts who speak over the voters’ heads. What the Remainers had missed was that, after the crash of 2008, everything had changed; deference to ‘experts’, elites, pollsters, and the globalisation of the centre were gone. Voters had never much loved them but they accepted what they said; the utter failure and poverty they were seen to have been caused by them in the 08 crash destroyed this. The look on Kinnear’s face, as the Remain focus group, held 13 days before the vote, comes to its crashing crescendo – an intense and dramatic microcosm of what the arguments were, had become, and still continue to be – said it all as the colour drains from his face as the realisation hits that they’ve lost and been playing the wrong game on the wrong pitch.
Brexit: The Uncivil War is not an edge of seat political thriller. Instead it’s a dramatic exploration, rooted in reality, of how Leave won and the polarising arguments that we are still suffering from came to be. It’s what Graham does best. What carries it is a series of superb performances. Benedict Cumberbatch of course gives a masterful portrayal, even if his slight Durham accent at times veers into a Welsh one. The supporting actors give superb performance even though their characters aren’t particularly developed – Banks and Farage are drunken nouveau riche buffoon caricatures who have to be stopped even by Vote Leave, and Bernard Jenkins is hilarious, especially on his cross trainer. But these characters are not meant to be developed; after all, this is a film about the brain behind the campaign, not the campaign itself. By writing the supporting cast of politicians and donors as absurd nincompoops, it contrasts their out of touch nature with Cummings and the public.
In the end, though, you’re left asking yourself whether Brexit was just a game, a game played out by a warring elite? Of course the inescapable answer is that, at least to a degree, that’s exactly what the Brexit referendum was. It was a game that they all cheated at by finding ways round the rules and misleading adverts. Vote Leave just did it better because it saw the reality of what was out there, unlike Remain.
At the end even Cummings is left in despair over the ongoing effect of his campaign strategy on daily life. But Brexit: The Uncivil War doesn’t seek to come down on this, one way or the other It is fair and even handed, exposing the arrogance of Remain while exploring the no holds bar, and at times purposefully misleading, strategy of Cummings. If anyone is to cry bias, it won’t be Brexiteers but Remainers who think they should have attacked the Vote Leave operation, especially in light of certain revelations that have subsequently come out. Ultimately, though, Brexit: The Uncivil War is an insightful piece into not just how Leave won but how the current political issues and tone of discourse came into being. It’s what James Graham excels at, and watch out for his cameo as he works on his laptop in Hyde Park.
London Lamppost Rating(4 / 5)
Available now on 4oD
Feature Image Dominic Cummings (Benedict Cumberbatch) courtesy of Channel 4