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Film / Brexit: The Uncivil War

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Brexit: The Uncivil War is a 2019 drama by James Graham, focusing on the role of Dominic Cummings, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, in the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union.

Brexit: The Uncivil War features examples of

  • Aside Glance: After the Leave vote wins, Cummings glances directly into the camera.
  • Attack! Attack! Attack!: How the Leave side wins, constantly making outlandish claims and then moving on while the Stay side spins its wheels proving them wrong.
  • Batman Gambit: When Farage and Banks try to persuade Cummings to join forces with their campaign, Cummings is even more antagonistic than usual, provoking them to storm off. It's revealed soon afterwards that he's counting on them doing the heavy lifting with the genuine racists and isolationists, thus allowing his campaign to be more "respectable" and target a different voter base. He acknowledges it as a risky strategy, but it pays off.
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  • Blatant Lies: Most notably the infamous "£350m a week" written on the side of the big red bus, as well as claiming that Turkey would be joining the EU.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: Cummings begins the film looking and speaking directly to the audience.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Cummings is prone to scribbling his notes on walls and locking himself in a closet to sit on a cardboard box when working.
  • Canada, Eh?: People assume that the AggregateIQ CEO is American, but he objects and says he's Canadian. The company is, indeed, based in British Columbia.
  • The Ditz: Leave spokesmen Michael Gove and Boris Johnson are portrayed as comically stupid. In a press interview, Gove stammers his way through responses to basic questions until Johnson provides a distraction. For his own part, Johnson can't help but start blabbing about all the inaccuracies in his campaign's statements about Turkey when caught off guard.
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  • Dying Town: Jaywick, only because enough inhabitants remain to keep it from becoming a Ghost Town, as in real life.
  • End of an Age: Oliver tells Cummings that he's unleashed a new era in the way political campaigns are run, which he sees as for the worse; "it's uncivil, it's unsophisticated, and worst of all, it's unkind."
  • "Eureka!" Moment: While up late at night reading a book on fatherhood in preparation for the birth of his child, Cummings reads lines about how new fathers feel a need to take back control, and realizes that Leave slogan needs to be "Let's take back control", since potential Leave voters feel they have lost it.
  • Everyone Has Standards: The murder of Jo Cox horrifies everyone on all sides, and Cummings is clearly disgusted when Farage's victory speech seems to have forgotten her.
  • Flyover Country: A key part of Cummings' strategy is targeting Britain's equivalent of flyover country, the poorest working-class neighborhoods that are all but ignored by other political campaigns. The Leave leaders personally visit the dying village of Jaywick to interview the locals.
  • Framing Device: See Hauled Before A Senate Subcommittee below.
  • Friendly Enemies: Played with: in a scene written for the film, Oliver invites Cummings out for a drink after their chance encounter at the Moorsgate tube station. They manage to be civil, but there is still a degree of sincere and profound disgust for what they each represent; Oliver being seen as the complacent, arrogant elite who is convinced he knows what's best for people while being completely out-of-touch with what ordinary voters really care about, and Cummings being an anarchist who's undermining the very concepts of expertise, objective facts and sophisticated discussions, while replacing it with crude, slogan-shouting subjectivism.
  • Golden Mean Fallacy: Craig Oliver complains that the television studios are giving Leave's rambling nobodies equal footing with Remain's esteemed professionals.
  • Gone Horribly Right: Some on the Leave side have this reaction when their victory becomes clear. In the Framing Device, future!Cummings is also seen to be very unhappy with how the success of his campaign has made political tribalism and incompetence even worse.
  • Hauled Before A Senate Subcommittee: The framing narrative has Cummings explaining himself, or trying to, before a fictional future hearing of the Information Commission. At the end he walks out.note 
  • Lack of Empathy: On the eve of the vote things in the Remain focus group heat up, with an elderly woman supporting Leave attempting to explain her troubles and reasons for supporting the issue, only for a glued-to-her-phone Millennial sitting beside her to dismiss her concerns by callously declaring that she'd "already lived [her] life" and, thus, should have little to say on the matter. Cue a complete emotional breakdown by the elderly woman as she elaborates on her grievances, and a realization from the Remain coordinators that they're very possibly in serious trouble.
  • The Man Behind the Man: Robert Mercer is noted to have provided substantial contributions to the Leave vote as well as to the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. It is heavily implied that he was simply using Britain as a test-case for an approach that could put Trump in power later.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Late in the campaign, after the focus group goes disastrously wrong following Oliver's backfired attempt to correct everyone's misconceptions, he realizes that the tendency of British politicians to blame the EU for anything and everything they couldn't accomplish is now coming back to bite them hard.
    • The murder of Jo Cox also prompts some soul-searching from the Leavers, as they consider to what extent their approach stirred up violent people. Cummings himself, though horrified by it, concludes that his campaign only "exposed" the ugliness and division already present in British society, rather than causing any of it.
  • Never My Fault: Cummings washes his hands of the colossal mess that Brexit has become after spearheading its passage.
  • Nostalgia Filter: Discussed. Cummings notes how people have a rose-colored impression of how things used to be, so he paints the narrative of leaving the EU not as a new change, but as a return to the way things used to be. This is fully realized when he changes the slogan from "take control" to "take back control."
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: The Leave campaign.
  • Room Full of Crazy: Cummings works out the themes of the Leave campaign, the original "take control" slogan, by writing a large Venn-ish sort of diagram on the back wall of his office.
  • Rule of Symbolism: The Tube tracks that divide Cummings and Oliver when they first see each other on the night after Jo Cox was killed.
  • Shout-Out:
    • One of the first scenes features Matthew Elliot quoting "Avengers, assemble!" Douglas Carswell admits that he doesn't get the reference.
    • Craig Oliver disputes the reputation of Dominick Cummings as a brilliant sage, saying "He's not the messiah, he's a very naughty... fucking asshole."
  • Villain Protagonist: The film is written by a left-wing Europhile, centering on the actions of right-wing Eurosceptics.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: A lot of the drama is between Vote Leave and Leave.EU for primacy as the official campaign in the referendum. On the Remain side, the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties are rather reluctant to work together.
  • Wild Card: Cummings is referred to as "an egotist with a wrecking ball" by Oliver, shortly followed by a grudging admission that this does make him rather unpredictable. Cummings' own (nominal) bosses find this out too, when they attempt to fire him for this reason, and he simply texts all his staff to resign immediately and gut the campaign, ignoring the bosses' spluttering that it's his patriotic duty to convince them to stay.
    • Arguably subverted by the time the film ends however, as (a) the unexpected Leave victory proved Cummings correct in the way he handled the campaign, and (b) he does seem genuinely committed to his belief that the established political class need to be shaken out of their complacency. His testimony in the Framing Device also suggests that what he actually wanted was to "hit the reset button" and stop the shortsighted tribalism of Conservative vs Labour vs Lib Dem etc., and is sincerely disgusted that it's gotten even worse.
  • Xanatos Speed Chess: Cummings' speciality, best shown when the directors of the Leave campaign, exasperated by his antics, ambush him with a jump-before-you're-pushed "request" to resign. His quick thinking and veneer of calm to their outrage sees him retain his position and his main opponent resign instead, with nobody quite able to work out what just happened.
    • Ultimately, Leave's victory is shown to be because of this; in the digital age, Cummings' better grasp of social media and recruitment of AggregateIQ and their algorithms that can modify and target adverts to specific people in real time gives him an edge that Oliver's conventional approach can't match, and makes the Attack! Attack! Attack! method mentioned above far more effective.