Watching HBO’s “Brexit” as an American is like going to a movie with the knowledge that you’re living in the sequel.
Britain’s world-upending vote to leave the European Union — currently stymied by bregrets, brecriminations and buyer’s bremorse — happened in June 2016. There’s scant reference to our own stunning 2016 election in the film, which airs Saturday. (Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s onetime strategist, and the billionaire conservative donor Robert Mercer are portrayed, briefly.)
But the parallels need little underlining: complacent establishments awakening too late to public anger; the exploitation of nativism and bigotry; and the frightening efficiency of social media as a way to surface grievances and weaponize them.
This last aspect drives “Brexit,” a snappy if unsubtle first draft of history that centers on Dominic Cummings (Benedict Cumberbatch), the prickly consultant who managed the “Leave” campaign to victory. Balding, impatient and lacking in interpersonal skills, he presents less as a revolutionary than as the revolutionaries’ I.T. guy.
Which is sort of what he is. Cummings, as depicted here, has no burning principle beyond a vague resentment of “the system” and contempt for the people who work within it. He doesn’t even like referendums, which he says reduce complex issues to binaries.
But he is driven by the technical challenge and by a never entirely explained urge to disrupt politics (which he analogizes, at one point, to an operating system). Dismissing his clients’ desire to build a broad coalition, he insists on running a divisive campaign in which the difference will be made by angry Britons who don’t usually vote.
Key to this is an offer to help target voters from an obscure tech firm: Cambridge Analytica. This is where the dun-dun-dunnn will play in the minds of American politics followers, who know that the firm has been implicated in exploiting Facebook data for the Trump campaign. “British democracy,” Cummings realizes, “is a lab experiment for a greater prize.”
Cumberbatch’s tight-wired performance is the best thing in this brisk but mechanical retread of recent events. His Cummings is an asocial savant — not unlike Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes — with a penchant for working through his thoughts in a supply closet. (He is fixated on the idea that he can “hear” the sound of Britain, which he describes as a groan.) Perhaps, “Brexit” suggests, he is effective precisely because he’s more comfortable with people as aggregates than as individuals.
[Read more of our Brexit coverage here.]
The portrayals of figures like the U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage (Paul Ryan) and the conservative London mayor Boris Johnson (Richard Goulding), on the other hand, verge on sketch-comedy impersonations. Tonally, “Brexit” lands somewhere between the dutiful style of most HBO docudramas and the frantic arm-waving of Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” and “Vice.” Political figures are identified not just with captions but also with a thumping “LEAVE” or “REMAIN” stamped on the screen.
The film, written by James Graham and directed by Toby Haynes, is itself a thumping stamp, relying heavily on eureka moments and didactic scenes. During a conversation about the amount of data people volunteer to the internet, the camera lingers on passers-by who are glancing at smartwatches and communing with their phones.
But “Brexit” at least knows what it’s about: the idea that febrile and deadly passions, stoked for years in politics and media, can be unlocked by messaging and technology like power-ups in a dystopian video game.
Despite its dark message, “Brexit” often has a swinging, heist-movie feel, even if the safe that’s being cracked is democracy. It walks through the methods of targeting people on social media by seeing what they click on (like a graphic that draws a menacing arrow from Turkey to the British Isles), then amping up the dog whistles and incitements.
The passions get more vicious and personal — in a striking scene, a focus group devolves into screams, tears and racism — until a pro-Remain member of Parliament is murdered.
In Britain, the film has been criticized on points ranging from its portrayal of Leave voters to its wading into charges of election manipulation that have yet to be officially investigated. I don’t claim to be able to vet its depictions of these events, much less its behind-the-scenes details. But taken as a broad statement, rather than a factual account,“Brexit” is sobering if dramatically flawed.
In the United States, of course, HBO has a record of election movies (“Recount,” “Game Change”). Until the network takes its shot at America’s own 2016 surprise, consider this a preview of coming attractions.