LONDON—HBO’s new Benedict Cumberbatch Brexit movie is great—unless you want to know what really happened in Britain’s notorious 2016 referendum.
This misleading account of the campaign might be forgivable under the “artistic license” defense if the production didn’t go out of its way to pretend it was some kind of behind-the-scenes reconstruction. At the end of the opening sequence of Brexit, Cumberbatch looks down the camera and says: “Everyone knows who won. But not everyone knows how.”
Uncharitable viewers might suggest that the screenplay’s writer, James Graham, appeared to be one of those with a shaky grasp on how the Brexit campaign pulled off the historic victory.
Some of the glaring errors in an early version of the script—which was leaked to The Daily Beast last summer—have been cut, but there are plenty of inaccurate and downright misleading scenes in the final production.
The film features the American billionaire and Trump-backer, Robert Mercer, jetting into London offering to help Brexit, which never happened; it shows Zack Massingham’s Canadian firm offering a state of the art data-modeling service, which it did not provide; and yet there was no time to show the rule-breaking that led to Vote Leave being found guilty of breaching British election law.
The only nod to Vote Leave’s campaign breach came in a single shot that showed three young campaigners in the background wearing Be Leave T-shirts. The electoral commission found that Be Leave had been set up as an offshoot of the main campaign to illegally circumvent limits and increase the spending on data-targeted Facebook ads in the closing days of the referendum.
Shahmir Sanni, a whistleblower who was involved with Vote Leave and Be Leave, told The Daily Beast that the film had not lived up to its own billing. “The film fails to cover the reality of how Brexit was won. Yes, data was at the core of why they won, but the important aspect is not why but how,” he said. “They won by breaking electoral law… To miss out on this important aspect is to lure the viewer into a false belief that Brexit was won by sheer intellect and bravado.”
The intellect and bravado in question is portrayed in compelling fashion by Cumberbatch, who channels his incarnation of Sherlock Holmes in order to help the screenwriter imbue Vote Leave campaign director Dominic Cummings with enough intrigue and wit to make him a worthy protagonist for a feature-length film.
Cummings certainly does boast a rare intellect. He is famous in Westminster for his multi-thousand-word blogs, his virtuoso policy proposals and his disdain for politicians, almost all of whom he considers intellectually inferior. None of these habits make him terribly popular in the corridors of power.
While drafting this fictionalized account of the Brexit campaign, Graham has elevated his leading man into a political savant complete with the mystical (one assumes metaphorical) ability to actually hear the will of the nation via a persistent humming sound which is audible only to him.
In The Guardian’s savage review, which described the movie as “superficial, irresponsible TV,” Lucy Mangan concluded that Graham “seems to have succumbed to the dramatist’s temptation of falling in love with his subject.”
Andy Wigmore, who was the spokesman for the other pro-Brexit campaign Leave.EU, agreed with her sentiment on Cummings. “[It] was just a Vote Leave wankfest that made Cummings out to be some kind of genius and the rest of us stupid,” he told The Daily Beast “When in fact it was completely the opposite.”
Another Brexit campaign veteran, Paul Oakley, the General Secretary of the U.K. Independence Party, made a similar point while the movie was being broadcast in Britain:
Craig Oliver, the former director of communications for No. 10 and one of the leading figures in the Remain campaign, wondered aloud to The New York Times whether Graham had puffed up the Cummings role in order to suit his plot: “Do you give that person a sense of weight, and virtue, simply because they are the protagonist?”
Wigmore may have felt Cumming’s role was exaggerated, but he was happy enough with the dramatization. He said he thought the crude, comic caricatures of his populist Leave.EU colleagues Nigel Farage and Arron Banks were hilarious.
“Loved it,” he wrote in an email. “Farage and Banks best bits, pure comedy gold lol.”
The Leave.EU leaders were indeed played for laughs, which underplayed their success in stirring up an anti-immigration debate that helped Brexit get over the line. The right-wing duo were deployed by Graham to puncture the earnest tone adopted by the hapless Remain campaign and most of the Vote Leave players—with the notable exception of Boris Johnson, who was played incongruously, as though he’d wandered on set straight from a Saturday Night Live sketch.
Some of these buffoonish secondary characters ensure that this production stays firmly within the realm of the TV movie no matter how bravura Cumberbatch’s intellectual fireworks.
One of the most surprising cameos comes from Mercer, who drops into a gleaming Breitbart London HQ to offer U.S. assistance for Brexit. The most egregious lines from the earlier draft, where he explained to Banks how to skirt around British electoral law, have been cut—perhaps on the advice of lawyers?—but his very appearance is still ludicrous.
The famously reclusive political donor hardly made Brexit one of his top priorities. “Bob couldn’t give a flying fuck about Brexit!” Steve Bannon told The Daily Beast when the original script was leaked. “He wouldn’t come to London! Are you fucking kidding me? That he would get on a plane and come over here is a comic-book fantasy. It just didn’t happen.”
Christopher Wylie, a Cambridge Analytica whistleblower who worked with Mercer, also told The Daily Beast at the time that Mercer was agnostic on Brexit and would never have traveled from the U.S. to weigh in on the campaign.
The inclusion of Mercer in the drama was Graham’s effort to link Brexit to the Trump campaign. There was no flying visit to London, but there were links between the two great political upsets of 2016 via Cambridge Analytica, which was reportedly funded in part by Mercer and AggregateIQ, Massingham’s Canadian operation, which appeared to be closely linked to Cambridge Analytica. AIQ, which features in the movie, did work for Vote Leave although it was not responsible for the data modeling so dramatically offered during an espionage-inflected scene in the film.
Aside from one photograph of Farage and Banks posing with the president-elect in front of his golden elevator soon after the 2016 election, most of the Trump-Brexit links have been played down or covered up. It has taken years of investigative reporting to expose the transatlantic money and data trails, most of which have been uncovered by The Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr, who was rewarded with the Orwell Prize for political reporting and the Reporters Without Borders “L’esprit de RSF” award.
She was approached to contribute to this movie, but Cadwalladr said she turned them down because she felt it was impossible to make a responsible film while the story was still unfolding.
“For an entire year, the Cambridge Analytica story was dismissed by many journalists and news organisations as a ‘conspiracy theory’ and ‘snake oil.’ It was incredibly difficult to continue publishing because of the legal threats we faced and we are still struggling to expose the truth. So, to have Robert Mercer depicted as a Bond villain in the drama in a totally overblown scene with Arron Banks—who to my knowledge he’s never met—felt really unhelpful,” she told The Daily Beast. “This was fuel to the fire of a lot of the people who continue to dismiss our investigation.”