Brexit Review: The Big (Ben) Short

Brexit HBO Benedict Cumberbatch in Brexit, photo: Nick Wall/HBO

Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Brexit architect Dominic Cummings in a blunt historical drama that wrings hands about the dissolution of our modern political discourse.

This piece was originally posted on Alcohollywood

How did we get here? It’s a question people on both sides of the pond have been asking themselves since 2016 – between the election of Donald Trump and the EU referendum that suggested the British people want to leave the European Union, the world has turned upside down for many people who hold dear the ideals of unity, civility, and diversity. Some argue that this is just the chickens coming home to roost, a world plagued by the anxieties of multiculturalism and globalism getting fed up and shutting their doors to others. Others argue it’s ideological racism and fascism, plain and simple, their complaints just dogwhistle arguments for existing prejudices. These sentiments aren’t new, or reemergent; they’ve been lying in wait, and the world of social media, data mining and microtargeting have signal boosted these platforms by manipulating people’s fears and anxieties to a fever pitch.

“Everyone knows who won, but not everyone knows how,” says Dominic Cummings (Benedict Cumberbatch), the balding, calculating force of nature at the center of HBO’s Brexit. While Brexit media coverage (in the States at least) was dominated by blustering, offensive figures like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, Brexit argues that the real architect of Vote Leave’s victory was Cummings, director of the campaign, who utilized unconventional, data-driven tactics to win. His secret? Ignoring the established way of doing things – focus groups, decorum, parliamentary procedure – for a grassroots, guerrilla-style deep dive into the fears and anxieties of the common people of Britain. This sets him apart from the fussy, facts-driven tactics of Craig Oliver (Rory Kinnear), Remain’s chief political strategist, who is adamant that the truth will out. Not so, he finds – Cummings locks onto a bold, attractive message that suddenly activates millions of non-voters across the country: Take Back Control. By tapping into the fear that they’ve lost control over Britain, and that leaving the EU will help them get it back, Leave suddenly experiences an unprecedented tidal wave of support.

Brexit, for better or worse, offers a Sherlock-ian vision of the fight to win the referendum, right down to Cumberbatch essentially playing Cummings like his smarmy, sociopathic take on Sherlock Holmes. Like his iconic detective, Cummings is abrasive and asocial, frequently talking circles around the stuffy British establishment around him. (At one point, the campaign’s board members, tired of the confrontational nature of his campaign strategy, asks him to leave; by the time the scene has finished, he’s convinced the chairman to resign and give him his seat.) It’s the kind of swaggering, fast-talking milieu Cumberbatch excels in, and to his credit, he’s quite good here, even if the script lets him coast back on his know-it-all Holmesian tics. His street clothes clash deliberately against the Savile Row suits of his competitors, and his campaign office is covered with magic marker scribbles and diagrams like a conspiracy theorist’s basement whiteboard. There are moments of vulnerability that help lend at least a second dimension to his shady operator, chiefly rendered through his loving, supportive relationship with his wife, Mary Wakefield (Liz White) and the complications surrounding her pregnancy. But for the most part, he’s still playing the Smuggest, Smartest Man in the Room, which has been tedious since, well, season 2 of Sherlock.

The Sherlock parallels don’t stop there, though: this film is directed by Toby Haynes, who’s directed an episode of the show (as well as episodes of Doctor Who and Black Mirror), and infuses Brexit with that same kind of arch, winking procedural crispness to the look of the film. While we don’t get the ‘mind castle’ histrionics of Sherlock, Brexit is chock-full of cheeky graphics and ironic musical choices. Important characters are introduced with large, booming title cards depicting their name, rank and big red or blue stamps indicating how they voted. Daniel Pemberton’s classically-inspired score blares its full orchestra against the austerity of the Halls of Parliament and the Museum of London, a sonic representation of the aristocracy unaware of its impending defeat by Vote Leave’s Molotov cocktail of anti-establishment sentiment.


“Everyone knows who won, but not everyone knows how.”

Dominic Cummings (Benedict Cumberbatch)

Amidst all this handsomely-rendered craft is a gripping, though often overly explanatory, dissection of the way the Brexit campaign caused a sea change in the way technology and media fractured political discourse. Whether through Cummings or Oliver, Brexit does a lot of explaining, to the point where it almost feels like a watered-down version of one of Adam McKay’s darkly comic political essay films (The Big Short, Vice). Characters exist as mouthpieces for screenwriter James Graham‘s political essays on How We Got Here: Cummings’ public park walk-and-talk with AggregateIQ co-founder Zack Massingham (Kyle Soller) is a Data Mining 101 monologue describing to the audience how social media activity allows political campaigns to micro-target and sell you the most convincing individual message. Oliver vents to one of his aides about the futility of fighting impassioned claims with boring facts in a speech that feels ripped verbatim from one of the books written by the film’s political consultants.

Unsubtle though it may be, Brexit occasionally touches on some of the major political and cultural turning points that led us to this seemingly unbridgeable political divide. The genius of Vote Leave was its ability to tap into very real, very tangible failings in the British establishment – that the MPs don’t represent the people, that those outside the cities feel ignored and invisible – represented in brief but telling arguments in voters’ homes and one particularly rowdy focus group. Brexit‘s greatest strength is in recognizing that, while Remain had the truth and facts on their side, nothing drives action quite like grievance and resentment, no matter how justified. Even when an angry Brexiteer guns down young MP Jo Cox, Brexit snidely comments on the news cycles’ ability to brush past it (and Farage’s real-life assertion that they won “without a single bullet fired”). These moments of justifiable acid are some of Brexit‘s most effective moments.

Even so, the rest of Brexit is disappointingly shallow, whipping through reams of political nuance in a brisk 100 minutes with its reams of Sorkinesque civics-splaining. The film cuts corners and offers clear signposts for its characters to literally sit down and talk about the erosion of our political discourse. In one fictionalized scene late in the film, Cummings and Oliver sit down at a pub to calmly hash out their frustrations, pointing out that the Pandora’s Box of identity politics and social media manipulation has been opened, and cannot close again. “The train coming down the tracks isn’t the one that you expected,” Cummings explains. “It’s not the one that’s advertised on the board. Well, tough. It isn’t even the one that I imagined. But I accept it. And you can’t stop it.”

Oliver’s reply is chilling: “Be careful what you wish for. You won’t be able to control it either.” Whether you subscribe to it or not, Brexit is committed to this particular brand of political nihilism.

What’s more, its focus on Cummings as the real culprit ends up letting some of its other, more openly odious figures off the hook. Farage (Paul Ryan) is a blustering buffoon who has little real purpose in the narrative (since UKIP and Vote Leave never joined forces), so he just exists in the periphery. Richard Goulding‘s impeccable impression of the bumbling, straw-headed Boris Johnson aside, the character is depressingly tertiary. Most dangerously, Brexit ends up painting him as someone who retroactively regrets the real-world consequences of their victory, closing the film holding his head in regret while his limo drives past exultant Leavers celebrating the vote.

As real-world politics have borne out, there was never really a plan for Brexit by those who wanted it – it was effectively a tantrum, a protest vote spurred on by ambitious MPs who stoked racism and anti-establishment sentiment but never expected the vote to actually go through. Even Cummings is revealed to have simply wanted to throw a wrench into the works without doing the hard work that comes afterward. No one knows how to change their world; they just want the change to come regardless.

Maybe it’s too soon to expect a detailed, subtle breakdown of the Brexit vote; after all, Brexit hasn’t even happened yet (and, God willing, it may never happen at all). Great Britain still seems like it’s in a state of shock, scrambling for answers to a proposed solution that has just led to more and more problems. It’s a handsome but frustrating watch, equal parts civics lecture and dark political farce, with all the lily-white gravitas England’s acting community can offer. Perhaps in time, we’ll have the perspective and political understanding to really dig deep into the nuances of what made Brexit happen, but for now, this quick-and-dirty primer will have to do.

Brexit Trailer
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