Brexit isn’t history yet. In fact, the future of Britain’s place in the E.U. is as uncertain as ever. This week, Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal was struck down in a landslide vote in the House of Commons. Now, as Rachel Maddow later put it on her MSNBC show, the U.K. is in a “free fall that appears increasingly destined to take much of organized Western Europe with it.”
In the middle of this chaos comes the HBO movie Brexit, out January 19 at 9 p.m. ET, which spins recent history into a fictionalized narrative. Brexit focuses on the figure that got the U.K. to this teetering position in the first place: Vote Leave's campaign director, Dominic Cummings, played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the film. Though people like MP Boris Johnson (Richard Goulding) were more public-facing advocates of Vote Leave, Cummings was the maverick visionary behind the entire initiative – or at least that’s how Brexit positions him.
If you haven’t heard of Cummings, Brexit is here to get you acquainted. Though, according to his blog, Cummings has never officially been a member of a political party, he has a long career influencing Britain's political course. Cummings was born to an oil rig project manager and a special needs teacher in Durham, England in 1971. After graduating from Oxford in 1994, where he read Ancient and Modern History, Cummings moved to Russia and tried to start an airline.
When that venture flopped after making only one flight, Cummings' political career began. Between 1999 and 2002, Cummings campaigned against Britain joining the Euro currency (a foreshadowing, perhaps, to his work with Vote Leave). At later points in his career, Cummings worked closely with conservative party leader Iain Duncan Smith (who he called "incompetent") and education secretary Michael Gove, resigning from his role as Gove's main advisor in 2014. Over the years, Cummings threw some notable insults (calling Deputy PM Nick Clegg a "revolting character") and developed a reputation as being a non-traditionalist who didn't suffer fools.
In 2014, writer Andrew Gimson gave a portrait of Cummings the political operator in the website Conservative Home. "He is exceptionally intelligent, without being exceptionally steady: a ruthless man who fights to win and is prepared to risk defeat. If he were a conventional careerist, he could be bought off, or persuaded to be patient in the hope of obtaining the reward of becoming an MP and a minister. Cummings is more dangerous than that. He is an idealist. When he puts his mind to achieving practical results, which happens to be something he is very good at, he does so because he has ends in view which transcend self-advancement." Perfect proof of Cummings' idealism is found in his 237-page manifesto entitled "Some thoughts on education and political priorities."
In 2015, when the then-44-year-old Cummings was tapped to spearhead the Vote Leave campaign along with political advisor Matthew Elliott (John Heffernan), those "ends in view which transcend self advancement" would became clear. Cummings would apply his mind to Britain's leaving the European Union. Famously, Cummings is responsible for coining the Vote Leave's “Take Back Control” slogan plastered on buses, posters, and tube stations.
“Take back control worked on different levels,” the real Cummings explained in a talk about his strategy for the campaign. “The most obvious level was we have to take control back from Brussels [the E.U. headquarters]. It was also about taking back control from the system itself. Yeah, those are the guys who screwed up the economy, whose mates are Goldman Sachs guys and hedge funders with massive bonuses. We’ll show those guys. We’ll take back control from you lot in London. That was a powerful feeling.”
Cummings was also instrumental in deciding the Vote Leave's selling point, plastered on that infamous red bus: An extra £350 million would be spent on the NHS every week after leaving the EU. Cummings also played up the issue of immigration in Vote Leave's platform. A study looking into the link between xenophobia and the Brexit vote concluded that "psychological predictors of xenophobia were strongly linked with voting to leave the EU," per The Independent.
According to Cummings, these points — and targeted ads shaped around these points — were what achieved Vote Leave's victory. “Would we have won without immigration? No,” Cummings wrote in Spectator. “Would we have won without £350m/NHS? All our research and the close result strongly suggests no."
Cumberbatch was drawn to Brexit for the script, not the politics. "I’m being sucked into it — these characters, their intelligence, the wit of it, the emotional power of the drama. I realized this is what drama can do at its best," Cumberbatch told Mary Wakefield, Cummings' journalist wife, in an interview with Spectator (that was the extent of Cumberbatch's press for the movie).
According to Wakefield and her 2-year-old son with Cummings, who said "da-da" when he saw Cumberbatch in character, the performance is on-point. Cumberbatch spent a day with Cummings to pick up on his movements. “People know more about the politicians that were in the public eye during that campaign, rather than those on the other side like Dom. It does feel like a responsibility to get him right," Cumberbatch said.
As for Cummings' role in all this? Though he engineered Vote Leave, he's not involved at all with the fallout. According to the Financial Times, "He has 'absolutely zero' involvement in the general election."