It’s crass to open with the idea that Brexit: The Uncivil War needs to be looked at from two different angles but that doesn’t make it any less true. This is a dramatic presentation of events we’re living in the immediate aftermath of and as a result I’ve had to look at it as two different beasts; a movie and an exploration of all too recent, all too painful history.
First off, yeah as a movie it basically works. It should, it’s been made before, more than once. It’s got the exact same ‘classical music and playful twinkle’ tone that very nearly every British politics movie made this century has had. There’s none of the foul-mouthed exuberance of In The Loop sure, but there’s plenty of the arch, just this side of behaving eyebrow raises of The Deal or The Iron Lady. It’s a tone that feels smugly, respectfully irreverent, the equivalent of watching a two hour episode of Have I Got News For You where they make the far-right wing host squirm a LOT before enabling and normalizing his rhetoric. This reaches peak eye roll with the arrival of Nigel Farage by helicopter at Arron Banks’ house party in an early. Banks is in flip-flops and shorts because he is a millionaire man of the people and has no truck with the old posh inhabitants of central casting at his soiree. So, we’re treated to an extended sequence of Farage’s helicopter disrupting (YOU SEE WHAT THEY DID THERE?) the hoity toity partygoers before it can land and he and his blokey mate can bloke at each other blokily. The Uncivil War is never ever subtle. At any point. But if you want a nadir of predictability and comfortable inoffensive finger wagging, it is surely this sequence.
But The Uncivil War also draws from another well. With Benedict Cumberbatch front and center the film inevitably tips its hat to every other time Cumberbatch has been called upon to unleash his mechanized intellect and arrogance on the screen. Don’t get me wrong, I like the man’s work. But I can still just about remember when every role on his filmography couldn’t be described as ‘genius, but an asshole.’ Not a BAD guy, but very much a bad GUY.
Here he plays Dominic Cummings. The Leave campaign architect and legendary terrible opinion haver is presented as the latest in Cumberbatch’s quarrel of scruffy haired savants. He’s driven, mumbly, tired of the horrible old establishment and uncaring of what will happen when he burns it down. He’s the single dynamic presence in this morass of sad Tory boys, sadder Tory men and bloviated UKIP shouters and the movie is watchable because of the work Cumberbatch does and very little else.
Because what he finds is, briefly, almost, stunning even revolutionary. The single point where the film sprints along is where we’re shown Cummings’ searing, burning entitlement. He wants to WIN. He feels like he DESERVES to *WIN* and when Cumberbatch is allowed to show that nasty, teeth-baring hunger, he’s electric. Not to mention familiar. This is freelancer’s rage, writer’s fury. This is the Tenth Doctor screaming ‘BECAUSE I’M CLEVER!’, the raging frustration of not feeling seen, or validated, or rewarded enough. The raging fury of the overly clever and underappreciated white man. In these moments, he’s every right wing youtuber, every over-articulate critic, everyone who’s ever used the phrase ‘SJW agenda’ or ‘cuck’. He’s the Ur-Nerd, an above average man treated averagely and if we’d just LISTEN, he could save us all by being cleverer than we are. Cummings would have got Jurassic Park made in half the time and fought every lawsuit. Your kid didn’t HAVE to be in the same space as that raptor, after all. He would have made sure the Death Star didn’t have that stupid exhaust port. Cummings would have had men stationed on the Grassy Knoll and because WE didn’t listen none of what comes next is HIS fault.
But outside those scenes, which are also director Toby Haynes’ best work, Cummings is an empty space . Sherlock in a bike helmet. Stephen Strange with a bald patch, as Cumberbatch and James Graham’s script both struggle and fail to get a hold of the man. Worse, Cumming is the only one the script even bothers to try and come to grips with. Other major players are simply glossed over. The women at the center of the campaign on both sides especially are invisible, often literally. In an unintentionally hilarious moment, Cummings returns home, collapses on the bed and asks his wife, who we’ve not seen for the 50 minutes or so that precede this and whose face we never see, why no one likes him. My answer was far less polite than her’s.
But, all these caveats aside, it works as a movie. It’s generic and smug and has a weirdly repetitious structure that sees Graham repeatedly have people gurn secretly at each other across crowded rooms but it does the job.. As a depiction of the events though? It’s a failure.
Carole Cadwalladr‘s thread here does an excellent job of breaking down what the movie did right and the vast swathe of things it simplified. Her, entirely justifiably combative, interview with scriptwriter James Graham goes into more detail and also neatly brings out the one thing that made me want to put my foot through the screen. Here’s the quote:
For me, when it came to Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Banks, Farage, there was latitude to apply a more heightened presentation using the classic British weapon of caricature as a way of bringing people down from their pedestal. So that was a driving motivator…
Caricature, in British political fiction especially, is the first resort not just of the lazy dramatist but the dangerously, perhaps willfully irresponsible one. Here more than anywhere else the movie fails and fails totally and dangerously. It fails because it shows a terrifying lack of awareness of the role these men played in gouging open a cultural wound that may not heal in my lifetime. Yes the story focuses on Cummings but by caricaturing the others Graham tacitly excuses their actions and like the vast legions of writers who’ve stumbled before him on the subject, normalizes their beliefs . Farage is just a shouty bullfrog in a bad coat, Johnson a terrible wig, Gove the human personification of the inability to clap. By seeing them as punchlines Graham misses that none of them are funny. By rendering them into background details, Graham enables their getaway.
Perhaps the greatest failing of the story as an exploration of historical events is that it’s a story. Fiction demands a structure history resists, a neatness that sacrifices honesty and truth for manufactured catharsis. The shadow of Jo Cox’s murder hangs over the final 15 minutes of the movie and it’s here, arguably, that Graham finally shows up for work. Cummings and opposite number Craig Oliver (played with weary competence and compassion by Rory Kinnear) meet by accident and go for a drink. Cox is dead, it’s clear to Oliver that Cummings has won and neither man is sure what to feel about that. What follows is about 5 minutes of two of the best actors of their generation trying to sell the near impossible idea that Tory and right wing politicians can and do have crises of conscience. Neither quite lands it, and the moment itself feels utterly manufactured but it’s the closest to catharsis we get and its one of the few times the movie’s dramatic and factual motors are running at the same speed. If you were feeling charitable, you could even argue this is where Cummings is ultimately revealed as a villain due to his somewhat offhand attitude to the murder committed in the environment he supervised the creation of.
That’s driven home by the oddest choice Graham makes. The movie is bracketed by Cummings giving testimony to an inquiry in the near future. Its very loosely implied everything has gone as wrong as its looking like it will as I write this. Cummings rages a little and then leaves, the movie closing with updates about Cambridge Analytica and the ongoing investigations that, it was revealed recently, haven’t even started. The credits roll, the story ends, the idealized Cummings rides off into the sunset, leaving chaos behind him. Perhaps that’s the most accurate moment of all, the point where history and fiction meet. Not a satisfactory ending in any way but the closest a film like this could get, given the subject matter and a final resonant note of ambiguity for this horrific, ongoing cultural pile up we face.
Brexit: The Uncivil War is on catch up services as we speak In a rare moment of irony imitating art, it may not be there in March 2019, when Brexit finally happens.