Recalling the Birth of Brexit: Let’s Blow Everything Up and See What Happens Next

Even Benedict Cumberbatch, alas, can’t fully explain Brexit.

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Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings. Photo by Nick Wall.

Cumberbatch gives it his best effort, however, in a new ripped-from-the-headlines HBO drama fittingly titled Brexit, which gets its U.S. debut Saturday at 9 p.m. ET.

The film couldn’t be more timely, arriving at the end of a remarkable week when British Prime Minister Theresa May’s latest effort to sell a real-life Brexit deal to Parliament got thumped — and 24 hours later the same Parliament turned around and said, yes, Mrs. May, we want you to remain our prime minister.

Even in the Trumpian age of weird politics, Brexit has stood out as unusually discombobulated.

Brexit the film, wisely, doesn’t attempt to follow the whole crazy path. It focuses only on the 2016 campaign that ended with British voters choosing to leave the European Union.

British Exit = Brexit.

Cumberbatch, swapping his signature old-school hairstyles for almost no hair at all, plays Dominic Cummings, the strategist who directed the successful “Leave” campaign.

Rory Kinnear plays Craig Oliver, his counterpart who led the failed “Remain” effort.

Most of the film’s attention, logically enough, falls on Cummings, suggesting his brilliant strategy won the day more than any failing of Oliver’s lost it.

The ominous part comes when Brexit suggests part of Cummings’s strategy relied on two shadowy sources of help: Robert Mercer, a conservative Texas billionaire who was the largest single donor to the campaign, and Cambridge Analytica, a leading-edge data mining outfit that promises Cummings it can identify and target three million disenchanted people who rarely vote at all, but here might see a “leave” vote as a way to give the finger to all those hated establishment politicians.

Cambridge Analytica has been accused of practicing shadowy business like illegally mining data from unknowing users of social media like Facebook. Cambridge Analytica may be familiar to U.S. viewers from having sparked similar charges with its role in the 2016 Donald Trump campaign.

Brexit doesn’t attempt to adjudicate those allegations. It does include a Cambridge Analytica defender who notes that online identification and targeting of voters has been around for a decade or more. Cambridge Analytica perhaps just did it more effectively, a suggestion that opens the door to looking at Cummings’s whole campaign in a different light.

Maybe, contrary to some of the insinuations here, the “Leave” campaign didn’t rewrite the political rulebook. Maybe it simply executed the traditional rulebook using modern tools.

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Cumberbatch and the Leave bus. Photo by Nick Wall.

Cummings based the official campaign on its most broadly appealing and least controversial arguments: that leaving the EU would save Britain money and allow Britain to set more of its own policies.

At the same time, he made sure the surrogates for the official campaign, a more aggressive and blunt group, would continuously remind voters that leaving the EU would mean Britain could set its own immigration policies — thinly disguised code for keeping more of “them” out.

That’s a classic two-path tactic for acknowledging a less lofty voter sentiment while officially remaining above it.

At the same time, against the advice of several old-school Leave advocates, Cummings diverted most of his resources and time to online operations, which he saw as a more persuasive path to hearts and minds.

Similarly, perhaps, Brexit keeps its own focus narrow enough that it never really gets into broader issues like whether there was a “populist” wave sweeping the whole globe around the time of the Brexit vote.

If there was such a wave, Cummings rode it nicely and gladly. The man himself, skillfully portrayed by Cumberbatch, comes off as a political iconoclast. He believes Britain should leave the EU, but more than that he believes the old guard of politics needs to be toppled so something better can be built on the ruins.

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Cummings with his strategy board. Photo by Nick Wall.

A coda to the film notes that the real-life Cummings rapidly became so disillusioned with the political aftermath of the Brexit vote that he walked away.

It isn’t exactly an echo of Tom Lehrer’s song “Werner Von Braun,” in which Von Braun sings, “Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? / That’s not my department… .” But it has a little of that feeling — that Cummings tossed the grenade and then skedaddled, letting everyone else deal with the consequences.

Brexit includes one fictional scene of Cummings and Oliver getting together for a drink, and each warning the other about what he is doing.

Cummings warns Oliver that he’s not listening to the voices and the real frustrations of the people.

Oliver counters that whatever Cummings is tapping into, he’s unleashing unguided missiles no one can control.

They both make good points, and to the extent they both fear the Brexit campaign was cooking up a formula for political chaos, that’s exactly the dish to which real-life Britain is now sitting down.

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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