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The battle for Brexit

Benedict Cumberbatch (Nick Wall/HBO)

Television

The battle for Brexit

HBO’s Brexit: The Uncivil War overplays the influence of charisma and social media wizardry on the U.K.’s “Yes” voters

While not as balanced as advertised, HBO’s new movie, Brexit: The Uncivil War, offers fascinating insight into the political upheaval reverberating through the Western world.

The film (which features frequent, and, if hot mics have taught us anything, probably realistic, profanity) focuses almost wholly on Dominic Cummings, director of the successful Vote Leave campaign. Brash and uncouth, Cummings (Benedict Cumberbatch) manages to offend nearly every established political player on both sides of the aisle. “Doesn’t he know,” a member of the House of Lords grouses about Cummings’ rough tactics, “that there are things you don’t do?” Sound familiar? 

Also familiar: accusations that Cummings’ slogan “Take Back Control” foments racism and that underhanded conspiring with data mining companies allow his side to pull out a win.

While the film gives us a complex, even likable character in Cummings, refraining from villainizing is not the same thing as offering a truly fair shake. We’re never clear, as we are with the Remainers, whether he really believes in what he’s selling. More frustrating, by giving Cummings so much credit, the movie itself manages to undermine the will of the voting public.

Still, the portrayal is instructive.

Whether it’s AggregateIQ or Cambridge Analytica or unknown Russian operations, it’s convenient to blame unseen wizards for delivering a win via technological sleight of hand. But that doesn’t explain why the same kind of previous nonvoters who turned out for Brexit turned out for Donald Trump. It doesn’t explain the yellow vests in France or National Front in Germany.

What these complaints ultimately convey is that the people didn’t mean it. They didn’t understand what they were voting for and were driven to pull certain levers merely because of buzzwords on a social media platform. Thus, their will can be ignored.

If anything is destroying the ideal of self-governance, it isn’t Cummings or Trump or anyone else smashing the old rules of campaigning; it is this.