In a fashion, British culture has long seemed divisive to the outsider. Remember Cool Britannia, when the war was Oasis vs Blur? Or “do you support Manchester United or Arsenal”? Or “is your favourite prince William or Harry”? These divisions are both trite and rather romantic compared to Brexit and people’s stance on whether the UK is better off on its own than with its European partners.
Brexit: The Uncivil War is a film that explores the in-out European Union referendum and how the so-called Leave campaign overcame internal divisions and massaged its messaging to convince key voters to leave the bloc. This is not a story about Boris Johnson or David Cameron, but of Dominic Cummings, the campaign director for Vote Leave who is expertly portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch.
Although the film deals with heavy political subject matter, it oozes the best of British comedy, with Cummings’ pro-EU rival saying, in a brilliant homage to Monty Python: “He’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty… fucking arsehole!”
By no means a household name, Cummings is arguably the most influential Brit since Winston Churchill as both the chief strategist behind Vote Leave and now as Johnson’s special advisor (though the second role is not part of The Uncivil War).
Red wine and falafel
“Why do people hate me?” Cumberbatch’s Cummings asks in the film. Much like Brexit itself, Cummings is divisive. His fans see him as a political mastermind disrupting the status quo, while critics accuse him of being an unelected anarchist intent on belittling and destroying democratic institutions.
In The Uncivil War, filmmaker James Graham shows us the former, with Cumberbatch representing Cummings as a savant who reads ancient Chinese philosophy while also using data mining and social media micro-targeting to win the referendum.
Cumberbatch adds a humanism to Cummings that may annoy Remain voters, but as the Financial Times writes, the Sherlock actor spent time with the political strategist when researching the role, “studying his mannerisms and his soft Geordie accent over red wine and falafel”.
The strength of Cumberbatch’s performance and Cummings’ centrality to the film is a potential issue, according to The Guardian, which wrote “everyone around him is reduced to a cipher” with “Michael Gove and Johnson puppets worked by the unseen hand instead of senior Tory ministers with practical and moral responsibilities they abandoned”.
However, The Uncivil War is not setting out to assess the moral rectitude of MPs, but instead sets out to portray several major steps on the road to Brexit. The first is how Cummings found and honed the now (in)famous Take Back Control slogan; the second how his Vote Leave campaign bested Farage’s LeaveEU rival campaign, and finally how the referendum was won.
On a more serious note, Cummings himself admits “referendums are the worst ways to make decisions as they simplify complex decisions”.
Heart over head
The film excels in the third area where it dispenses with much of its comedy and assesses the strategic brilliance of Cummings’ Leave campaign versus Remain’s stiffer, less emotive approach.
In a wonderfully crafted series of cut scenes, Craig Oliver, Cummings’ pro-EU rival, says of voters: “We need to be able to appeal to their heads – numbers, projections. We focus on the facts.”
The film then cuts to Cummings, who says: “We need to appeal to their hearts. Emotional resonance – their hopes, their dreams, their aspirations, their fears. Their suspicions.”
These scenes will indeed resonate with anyone who followed the campaigns closely. Cameron and his chancellor George Osbourne were criticised after the referendum for their campaign, which was technical in nature and that used import/export numbers, GDP projections and so forth.
Meanwhile, Cummings’ Leave strategy was simple yet elegant, boiling down to clear messages such as Take Back Control or “Leaving will put an extra £350 million in the NHS coffers each week”
More British gems
The glib comedy in the film has its place too. Brexit is indeed a very serious issue for the UK and the EU and with many months, if not years, of heavy negotiations on the horizon, there is value in a bit of levity.
On a more serious note, Cummings himself admits “referendums are the worst ways to make decisions as they simplify complex decisions”. The Uncivil War is perversely responsible for doing just that.
But Graham makes it work with his juxtaposition of the different strategies, and in particular the genius of Cummings, who takes inspiration from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.
“Brexit is a war, and we are only at the beginning,” warns The Guardian. It does leave viewers with cause to ponder. What if Cummings, or a general like him, had worked for Remain?