Given the current political climate in the United Kingdom — including this week's failure of Parliament to agree to the negotiated deal to leave the European Union and Theresa May's government barely surviving a no-confidence vote — it was almost inevitable that the new made-for-T.V. movie about the original Brexit vote to leave the E.U. (starring Benedict Cumberbatch as “Vote Leave” architect Dominic Cummings) would be embroiled in bitter controversy even before it aired in the United States.
Anyone looking for heroes — or, far more likely, villains — from the campaign will be disappointed: Characteristically, playwright James Graham instead looks to the broader motivations of the people involved, and how they then responded to the bitter and divisive mood the campaign unleashed, and which endures to this day.
But life has, in this case, imitated art: The very announcement that a movie was being made about Brexit was enough to stoke significant public anger at the simple fact of its existence.
Some of the journalists who helped unearth the story of how anti-E.U. activists exploited social media and — supposedly — cooperated with Cambridge Analytica in exploiting unsuspecting Facebook users, and thousands of online supporters of remaining part of the E.U. accused the filmmakers of seeking to make heroes of the men behind Brexit, and of creating a cover-up for a contentious campaign. Some even suggested threatening legal action against some of the people involved in the movie.
(The Leave campaign has indeed broken U.K. election law, chiefly for breaching strict political spending limits, and police investigations are ongoing. However, as there have been no arrests in connection to these offenses, there is no legal barrier to airing the program in the U.K., where law prohibiting certain kinds of publicity in on-going criminal cases are more strict than the U.S.)
The drama, which airs January 19 on HBO in the U.S. after having premiered in the U.K., doesn’t sound particularly dramatic on paper, focusing, as it does, on the people behind the scenes in the two campaigns which fought to either keep the U.K. in the E.U. or persuade it to leave in 2016.
Written by the feted Graham (who previously dramatized the Edward Snowden NSA leaks and Rupert Murdoch’s media empire), the drama seeks to explore some of the main characters behind the vote, little known outside the British political bubble, and how they brought the U.K. to its fateful decision to leave the European Union.
But for those in the U.S. (who were busy with their own divisive 2016 presidential campaign and the fallout since) or the U.K. who haven’t followed the behind-the-scenes drama of how the referendum unfolded, the movie may prove educational — revealing how data-driven ad targeting works, how campaigns shape messages targeting precisely the voters that aren’t paying close attention to the news and what it’s like to be in an election war room when you win or lose.
But that’s not where the drama truly succeeds: instead, that comes when it explores why the people involved used the tactics they did, and whether they were driven by hatred of the E.U., a desire to win at all costs, a need to avert political disaster, a bid to get Britain ready to the future or just a bloody-minded desire to get revenge on political elites that you believe have ignored people like you for too long.
These questions don’t just drive our protagonists; they’re the questions that Britain is still asking itself. Their consequences come to a head in a wholly-imagined scene a few days before the vote, in which Cummings finds himself face-to-face over a pint with his Remain opposite number, played by Rory Kinnear.
The scene — modeled on the famous Al Pacino / Robert De Niro diner showdown in “Heat,” right down to the placement of the ketchup bottle – sees the two campaign leads asking each other if they can live with what they’ve done, or failed to do.
It is set against the movie’s larger backdrop of seeing people in the U.K. descend into anger and division — exemplified by the sensitively-handled portrayal of the killing of Jo Cox, a Labour party member of Parliament, a week before the vote by a man who shouted “put Britain first” as he committed his brutal attack.
Perhaps the most telling moments, though, are two scenes of a focus group put together by the Remain campaign (a trope seemingly introduced to give a visual to explain voter segmentation) that includes definite leavers, strong Europhiles, the worried middle, and more, who have an awkward, polite but ultimately indifferent discussion about the affairs at hand prior to the vote.
When we see the same seven voters next — just a few weeks later, at the same table, over the same neatly-arranged biscuits — they are shouting, furious, and crying, and the people behind the mirror look terrified.
If Graham’s mission with the movie is to convince us that art has a role to play in explaining current affairs — and in giving us a different way to reflect on what has happened to us and is happening to us now — it’s scenes like the focus group ones that justify his case, giving us a different perspective on what’s unfolded over the two years since the vote.
It will be a particularly bitter irony if the anger he seeks to explain is still too strong to make gaining any such perspective impossible.