'Brexit' Review: How Soon Is Now

(Photo Credit: Nick Wall/HBO)

HBO's controversial drama Brexit arrives this weekend, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the man who changed history.

Dominic Cummings: We live in a multiverse of different branches of history... and in a different branch of history I was never here. Some of you voted differently, and this never happened. But I was, and it did. Everyone knows who won. But not everyone knows how.

For those who haven't been paying attention to overseas political news, Theresa May, the current Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative "Tory" Party was handed a resounding defeat in Parliament this week, when her Brexit deal with the European Union was rejected 432 votes to 202. But the expected No-Confidence vote in her government that was assumed to follow - causing the party to collapse and triggering a round of new elections - did not come to pass. Instead, her government won the vote of confidence 325 votes to 306. Having herself already survived a vote of No-Confidence in her party just over a month ago, the status of Brexit now remains in a deadlock. May cannot get a package together that the government will accept, but this self-same government is unable to move on from the status quo.

Part of the issue is that there is no substantial alternative. The Labour Party, which has always been an uneasy alliance of the working classes and high minded liberals, finds itself cracked along these lines, with the former mostly Leave and the latter mainly Remain. And as the Article 50 March deadline looms just weeks away, the situation over the United Kingdom's decision in 2015 to put this vote into action in the first place is ready to explode.

 

So why, one may ask, is there a Brexit movie arriving on HBO now, when Brexit hasn't even actually landed yet? One might argue this is akin to a film on Trump's win in 2016 arriving this weekend, only hours after Buzzfeed released a report charging the president with Nixon-level impeachable offenses. HBO has always been known for doing quick turnaround political films, attempting to strike while the iron is hot. But even the film on Obama's election, Game Change, didn't arrive until four years later, nearly his second term. Recount, the movie on Bush's election in 2000 aired in 2008.

But despite the title, Brexit isn't actually about Britain's exit from the European Union. It can't be. It's not finished yet. Moreover, a film on the nitty-gritty of Brexit's politics would have no business being on HBO. No matter how simplistic any film tries to make the ins and outs of the campaign, there is something far too esoterically British for an American audience to ever truly comprehend it, even if it were to be a 10-part miniseries. 

Instead, it's a film about the reality of our changing election landscape, and how the lack of foresight into the last decade of data mining stemming from our new interconnected social media world had the unintended consequences of changing how elections can be won. Brexit isn't the story of David Cameron's failure to think through the reality of a Leave/Remain campaign. It's about how a man like Dominic Cummings looked at the current technology and recognized how it could be twisted to reshape the electorate by the use of microtargeting - highly specific messaging to convince the voter to lean one way instead of their natural inclination to lean the other. It is, in short, the perfect parable to help us here in the U.S. understand how someone like Trump also won in 2016, and how, if we don't start fighting back against this sort of microtargeting, elections like these will continue to happen.

Brexit's intent as a parable for an American audience is perhaps most evident in the British press' negative response to the film, which ran over there as Brexit: An Uncivil War. When it aired on Channel 4 earlier this month, The Guardian complained that the film merely added to the misinformation about why Leave won, instead of clearing things up. But this is because this isn't a film about Leave vs. Remain (though the movie does a surprisingly great job at making the ins and outs of a political campaign thrilling to watch.) It's a warning flare ahead of the 2020 U.S. election not to let this happen again.

(Photo Credit: Nick Wall/HBO)

Benedict Cumberbatch has been, in some ways, unfairly pigeonholed as an unserious actor in Hollywood due to his pop role choices and legions of female fans. Despite his recent turns as Doctor Strange in the big-budget Marvel Cinematic Universe, the actor has been quietly working to change his reputation. Last year saw him give a tour de force performance in The Child In Time; this year, he's done the same in Brexit. All of the intense charisma while making rapid-fire technobabble sound intelligent from Sherlock is repurposed to good use here, though some might be turned off by it in the early going. However, it's necessary because without it this film would not have a riveting center holding the story together.

The fact is, this film's premise and its central thesis are honestly things that would bore the public. It's why this crisis to our democracy (and make no mistake, the back to back wins of Brexit and Trump make it obvious this is a crisis) has not managed to crack through the noise the way it should. Brexit's real triumph is it makes this granular exploitation of disaffection and xenophobia into the stuff of fantastic horror films. It turns that Remain's misguided belief “the facts will win out" are like the ingenue unaware of the monster Cummings, pulling strings behind the scenes, to trick her into opening the door and entering the darkened room alone, and the audience cries "Nooooooooooooooooo...."

But of course, we all know how the vote turned out, don't we? The monster won. And the fall out is only just about to begin.

Brexit airs on HBO on Saturday, Jan. 19, 2019, at 9 .p.m. ET, and will be available on HBO's streaming services directly following.