On that dreadful Brexit movie

We saw that Brexit movie on HBO last night. God was it dreadful.

Set aside the fetish for elite movers and shakers behind the scenes, the conspiratorial mindset of master manipulators of public opinion. (It’s kind of a weird moment where everyone across the spectrum seems to have their own versions of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.)

What was most grating about the film was how utterly familiar and clichéd was the lead character Dominic Cummings, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who was the mastermind behind the Leave campaign.

In Benedict/Cummings, we get—inadvertently, I’m quite convinced: self-importance; failed attempts at oracularity that wind up being platitudinous; incomprehensible scribbling on the white board, meant to signal that we’re in the presence of the political version of John Nash, that resolve on the insertion of a “back” in between “take” and “control”; historical grandiosity that can never quite decide whether Brexit is the most important event since the fall of the Berlin Wall or Alexander the Great’s decision to launch the Persian campaign.

Watching all of this, getting increasingly bored and irritated, I suddenly remembered where I had seen it all before: in the television ramblings of Pat Cadell.

Caddell, for those of you who don’t know or remember, was the pollster impresario behind Jimmy Carter’s 1976 campaign. He never was really able to repeat that victory again, though he certainly gave it a go with Gary Hart in 1984, Joe Biden in 1988, and Jerry Brown in 1992. But, boy, did he hold on for decades, trying to position himself on TV or elsewhere as the man who held all the keys to the castle.

All the same elements that we see in HBO’s portrayal of Cummings were there in Cadell: the impulse to self-dramatization, the combination of crackpottery and kitsch, and the sheer luck or happenstance of having won one campaign, propelling him, in the mind of his admirers and detractors, to the level of genius.

And at the same time, despite the grandiloquent homages to history and community and destiny, the HBO film gives you no real sense at all of what this guy actually thinks or is about. Just some vague sense of him—as was also true of Cadell—lurching from one cause to the next campaign to the next candidate, always in search of something, something. You do, however, get a much clearer—and, ironically, more poignant—sense of what the maestro behind the Remain campaign thinks and feels. Which may or may not have been deliberate.

I guess it’s just an irresistible conceit of the genre, the man behind the scenes of the political campaign, always reinvent to the wheel.

Speaking of which, the film’s obsession with online data tracking, micro-targeted ads and such: there was a whole spate of this kind of discussion back in the 1980s, just when more localized and computerized forms of marketing and market research were getting going, and how that all was going to completely and utterly transform our politics. In fact, my sister Jessica gave me a book for either my high school or college graduation that was all about this topic. I remember poring over page after page, chapter after chapter, of discussions about how zip codes were destiny, and how all political choices would be determined by this newfound granular knowledge of our consumer choices. The fetish for technology and microscopic knowledge as the grand explainer of politics never ends.

Anyway, if you haven’t seen the film, you can give it a pass.


  1. WLGR January 20, 2019 at 3:39 pm | #

    Speaking of ’80s-era discussions of micro-targeted public manipulation (and also speaking of everybody these days having their own version of Protocols of the Elders of Zion) it’s always worth re-emphasizing that Western liberals’ current panic about Russian disinformation is a wholly unoriginal copy of the anti-Soviet panic among Reaganite reactionaries in the early ’80s.

  2. Chris Morlock January 20, 2019 at 4:21 pm | #

    I too hoped to get some kind of insight into the Brexit saga (it’s still largely mysterious to me) and came off confused and unimpressed. Hollywood seems to use this narrative of the “elite hacker” at the center of many of its political stories. You could argue the recent “Vice” movie about Darth Cheney was similar- somehow the guy is in god’s grace and we have to watch as he glides through making everyone else look foolish. It’s a demagoguery for sure, with surprisingly little substance. It made me more than nauseous.

    Deja Vu, Cumberbatch also portrayed Assange in a similarly awful movie. Equally superficial and inane.

  3. jonnybutter January 20, 2019 at 5:20 pm | #

    But, boy, did [Cadell] hold on for decades,

    Unfortunately, I don’t know of any evidence that he isn’t holding on still. 2020 is coming up! His hulking bulk will be back on tv before we know it

    • Jim January 21, 2019 at 4:54 pm | #

      Caddell has pretty much become a rightwinger. He’s very critical of the Democrats, hates environmental protection is an official Fox News Contributor and regularly speaks to winger conferences like CPAC. I can’t imagine any Democratic candidate having anything to do with him, including Tulsi Gabbard. He’s even worse than Dick Morris.

      • Neal January 21, 2019 at 6:09 pm | #

        In fairness to Dick Morris, I was getting robo calls to Tea Party events name dropping him in mid 2009. So much for “grass roots,” I thought at the time. But that’s the catch; good fiction requires a change to occur. Politics rarely changes at all.

  4. Lorenzo from Oz January 20, 2019 at 6:00 pm | #

    If you want to know what the actual Dominic Cummings thinks, one could read his (very informative) blog. Much thoughtful musing about the dynamics of election campaigns and the broader dynamics of government, public policy, media …

  5. Roquentin January 23, 2019 at 12:34 am | #

    I haven’t seen it and most likely won’t now, but based on your description this movie suffers from the same analytical defect so much other liberal thought does these days: being almost physically incapable of recognizing that there are concrete forces which produced the current faux-populist right wing nationalist political movements around the globe. What finally drove it home more than anything else wasn’t even Brexit, it was recent events in France with the Yellow Vests and Macron. For some reason, that’s when I finally got it. If supposed center left parties are just going to carry water neoliberal capitalist technocrats and implement the austerity associated with that kind of politics (even if it flies under an ostensibly “green” banner) you can rest assured it will only end in victories for the right. That applies to Brexit as much as it does anything else. That the plan was a disaster, never was coherent to start with, and was largely motivated by xenophobia matters not. Even fake solutions are more appealing that none at all.

    I just see so much utter nonsense coming from so many different directions these days. No one seems to have any interest in anything except for flattering their own sensibilities anymore. It makes me think of that Baudrillard book “The Perfect Crime,” which treated the murder of reality itself as such. I guess that’s what I ultimately think of in regards to movies like that, someone quietly took reality out behind a shed and shot it when no one was looking.

    • Chris Morlock January 24, 2019 at 10:08 am | #

      I feel bad about rushing to judgement about the movie because I watched maybe 30 minutes of it and fell asleep first time around. I initially agreed with Corey’s assessment.

      Went back yesterday and watched it through, it actually has some depth towards the end. I think it’s worth watching because it gets one thing right: the narrative of the past 50 years is being questioned. The proposition of neoliberal corporate globalism, complete with multiculturalism, destruction of unions, supposed “free trade”, open borders, and undermining of democracy isn’t the slam dunk we were all promised. All ships did not rise with the tide and the working person faces an existential crisis. Those that made the jump to the upper middle class, the hybrid owner/worker, is still enthralled with the proposition of course.

      As the yellow vests march we see the next level of the development, and the standard right/left dichotomy failing even further into ambiguity. It’s not rocket science, people are hurting badly everywhere because the economic system is failing.

      • Neal January 24, 2019 at 4:42 pm | #

        But in trying to make it “movie friendly” it fully endorses that failed narrative, really. They had to boil it down to two guys sitting in a pub. As if those two people are in charge of everything under the sun. Everyone else is just a mope doing what media tells them to do. I’m sure that sounds great to the TV exec that got the pitch.

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