One of the biggest points of contention over Brexit, even today, goes back to how the 2016 referendum campaigns were conducted. Channel 4’s two-hour drama, ‘Brexit: The Uncivil War’, explores this crucial period in our history from an inside perspective and enlightens those of us still uninitiated to the dark truths.
The headline in the trailer is: “Everyone knows who won, but not everyone knows how.” Its writer, James Graham, decided to focus the attention on how the Leave camp’s use of technology helped shape the outcome of the referendum.
One of the main challenges for any drama based on a true story is being truthful and encompassing important facts while at the same time maintaining entertainment value. This drama does both, but only to an extent.
In the film, we follow Dominic Cummings (former Campaign Director of Vote Leave) as he tries to overcome the odds by securing the services of data firm AIQ.
Together, they target millions of Facebook users with tailored ads using information they previously collected on them through illicit means. Many of these advertisements are deceiving, including one that professes Turkey would be joining the EU.
The real-life events became public knowledge in 2018 when Christopher Wylie, who helped build the project, blew the whistle. The film doesn’t go into all the ins and outs about how this was made possible or who else was involved. Instead, it focuses more on our enjoyment.
However, journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who helped bring the real story to light, tweeted that the drama “whitewashes the deeply serious criminal offences” that were committed.
There is no mention of the fact that Vote Leave was found to have broken electoral law by exceeding the campaign spending limit. Similarly, it excludes anything about a criminal investigation being opened into Arron Banks relating to the source of money he used to finance his unofficial Leave campaign.
Also, there are a few scenes that are completely fictional, such as when Cummings gives testimony in front of a Parliamentary Committee.
Despite this, the writer does a great job of capturing the essence of what happened and the strategy adopted by both sides. There is a noticeable juxtaposition of how Remain play it boring and predictable whereas Leave are the innovators and risk takers.
Senior strategist for the Remain campaign, Craig Oliver, says to his team: “We need to appeal to their heads, numbers, projections. We focus on the facts.” By contrast, Cummings tells his colleagues: “We need to appeal to their hearts, their emotions, their hopes, their dreams, their aspirations, their fears, their suspicions.”
Before watching, it was difficult to imagine a promising angle for a film about Brexit given that the real-life saga has been immensely tedious and slow to unfold.
However, by focusing on a few characters and giving them distinctive and compelling personas, James Graham manages to bring the story to life.
Dominic Cummings is played by the always captivating Benedict Cumberbatch. In one of the first scenes, his character opens the door to his Georgian terrace, and at that point, anyone would be forgiven for thinking – damn, what happened to Sherlock? (It’s the balding).
The parallels don’t end there though. Just like Sherlock, Cummings suffers from smartest-person-in-the-room-syndrome. He’s childishly rude and condescending to authority figures he considers as intellectually inferior. His brain works in overdrive, and we, the audience, are allowed in to hear those inner thoughts.
A few of the other characters are portrayed satirically, namely Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Arron Banks. Yet, at times, the juvenile attempts at humour fail to hit, making for awkward viewing.
The writer also constructs the narrative in such a way that makes it easy to follow what’s happening. Perhaps it’s too easy at times. There is a lot of signalling and not enough subtext. We’re constantly kept in the loop about what Cummings is planning next instead of being trusted to work it out for ourselves – which is half the fun.
There are other elements that ruin it at times also. For example, the soundtrack is filled with epic music. This includes Beethoven’s last symphony – Ode to Joy. There are plenty of words to describe the tale of Brexit thus far, but epic is perhaps not one of them.
The second half is definitely stronger than the first. It moves past the annoying clichés and bad humour and into a more serious and dramatical tone.
Overall, this drama is certainly worth a watch – if not for the great production or timely subject matter, then for the benefit of knowing more about how the single most important vote of our lifetime was won.