BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On The Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD:And I'm Bob Garfield.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER].
MALE CORRESPONDENT:The ayes to the right, 202. The no’s to the left, 432.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Wow.
CROWD: [CHEERING] [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD:While we trudge through the slog of a government shutdown, Great Britain and the European Union are in the midst of a slow motion train wreck.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Stunning lose for British Prime Minister Theresa May as the Parliament strikes down her Brexit plans.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Theresa May has just won a no confidence vote in Parliament.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: She says that could mean the end of the increasingly controversial divorce. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: The UK will split from the EU on March 29th and there's still no plan for how. No plan for borders, no plan for trade, no plan for taxation because the public said no to Europe and Parliament said absolutely not to Theresa May's plan for the exit. And as though living through the uncertainty wasn't enough, this month, Brits got to watch a TV movie "Brexit," reexamining the 2016 referendum.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: In a different branch of history, I was never here. Some of you voted differently and this never happened.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: But I was. And I did.
BOB GARFIELD: Benedict Cumberbatch plays Dominic Cummings, the strategist behind the Vote Leave campaign. Cummings used Facebook data from such dodgy purveyors as Cambridge Analytica to target voters and it was he who came up with the campaign's cunningly effective slogan: take back control.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Everyone knows who won. But not everyone knows how. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: In Britain, the conversation around the film, even before it aired there on Channel 4 earlier this month, was how soon is too soon to explore a story that's still unfolding? And how much fiction is permissible and healthy about history still in the making? For Instance, the real Cummings refused last summer to appear before Parliament. He's shown in the film, apparently years in the future, testifying. Will Brits think that he has been held accountable? Brexit is set to air on HBO stateside for the first time on Saturday January 19th. Playwright James Graham is the screenwriter. He decided that instead of focusing on well-known Brexit figures like Theresa May or Boris Johnson, the film would follow Cummings and the director of the Remain campaign, Craig Oliver.
JAMES GRAHAM:The bizarre aspect of a referendum campaign is that in front of the camera all these familiar figures. They go out to sell these ideas and these policies, but in actual fact they aren't the decision makers. The decision makers are the strategists who are completely unknown, completely unelected and completely unaccountable, who come up with the policy visions and the ideas and the messaging--.
BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH AS DOMINIC CUMMINGS: It will appeal to their hearts–emotional resonance. Their hopes, their dreams, their aspirations, their fears, suspicions. [END CLIP]
JAMES GRAHAM: These tickets are completely unknown so it felt right to me to put those set to stage.
BOB GARFIELD: Cumberbatch brings the same hyper intense manic, I don't even know the words, almost hallucinatory quality that he brought to the Sherlock series.
BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH AS DOMINIC CUMMINGS: Britain makes a noise, an actual noise. Did you know that? It groans. It's been groaning for some time. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: And he's using all this Cambridge Analytica data and other lethal tools of guerrilla war, was he really the evil genius architect of Brexit or is this a bit of artistic exaggeration?
JAMES GRAHAM: There are two camps. There are the camps who thinks he's a genius, he felt the mood of a nation and identified long before Brexit, and if fact, long before Donald Trump this populist anti-establishment anger and mood sweeping across the western world. And knew how to tap into that to get the result that he wanted. There is another view, which is that he's an absolute fraud. He's a pseudo intellectual who has just learned a lot quotes from Greek philosophy and Russian history, but it's so meaningless and empty and he just got lucky. The fact is I don't know. I was very lucky, actually, to spend time with Dominic. He's not really given any interviews since the referendum campaign. He hasn't yet appeared before Parliament even though Parliament has requested his attendance. They didn't want to meet journalist for some reason, he wanted to be a playwright. Some of the ideas and the arguments that the Benedict character posits in this movie, it's the first time anybody but the playwrightknows. But I don't think the film comes down either side. I think--I think you, the audience, should decide whether or not you [inaudible] is a fraud.
BOB GARFIELD: You mentioned Cumming's refusal to testify before Parliament. The film opens with Cummings testifying before Parliament. I gather this is imagined at some time in the future.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Its primary purpose is to investigate the use of our personal data in political campaigns and the ways in which it is rapidly altering democratic--[END CLIP].
BOB GARFIELD: What's going on there?
JAMES GRAHAM: I don't mind admitting that some people have disagreed with us on this because there's a danger that you are implying that he has testified and actually he resolutely hasn't done that. And is it possible to get that wrong. You'll notice at the beginning of the film there's a character called Elizabeth Denham who's questioning him and she's the information commissioner. And she references the fact that the referendum was four years ago.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: This inquiry was established by the Information Commissioner's Office following revelations concerning the European referendum four years ago in 2016. [END CLIP]
JAMES GRAHAM: And that's our subtle way, I suppose, of sign posting that this is set possibly around 2020, 2021. Drama can hold these people to account and ask them questions and also put their arguments before the public in a way that yet hasn't satisfied.
BOB GARFIELD: Carole Cadwalladr, who is an investigative reporter for The Guardian and has been reporting on Cambridge Analytics role in the Brexit campaign, she says that the movie quote whitewashes the deeply serious criminal offences we know were committed. And she accuses HBO of quote, 'literally interfering with the criminal justice system.' How plead you on that?
JAMES GRAHAM: To be honest, everybody has their own version of what they think the Brexit film should be. Some people think I focused too much on Cambridge Analytica and the data. Some people, including Carole, nowhere near enough. I retweeted all of Carole's objections to the film because I want to create a debate. But we don't mislead, We absolutely reference the criminality with accused. I acknowledge that they were found guilty of overspending and that Facebook were charged a record fine for misuse of data–these things are there. But for me, it was important to not get, necessarily, hung up on things that one, would either completely isolate a lead voting audience and two, the point wasn't to operate a checklist of accusations towards a particular side of the referendum. I was more interested in the universal themes of what did that referendum say about us? Who Are we now? Can truth exist in a world of lies? Can we ever be objective about our politics and evidence based truths ever again? And that might sound very playwright-y, but I have to A, put something slightly more poetic and larger than some of those very specifics.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you believe that it was Cumming's or whoever had been running the operation would have achieved approximately the same result?
JAMES GRAHAM: Yeah that's really interesting and I'm aware that throughout history, playwrights in particular, have romanticized the potential influence of the individual because that's what makes good drama. That a single person can change the course of a nation's destiny. If you want my personal view, I think that, of course, individual people can make a difference. And of course campaigns can make a difference, otherwise why do we have election. But I do believe that Dominic Cummings, as an individual, did possibly increase enough voter turn out to affect what was a very narrow win for that campaign. Particularly, through the phrase that covered the slogan for the lead company which was 'Take Back Control.'.
BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH AS DOMINIC CUMMINGS: Take something back means it was, is, rightfully yours–taken from you. So much more understanding of who we are comes from this nostalgic feel we have of our past. [END CLIP]
JAMES GRAHAM: Maybe your job, maybe your money, maybe yourself sense of national identity, everybody could pull into that empty box of a slogan. The anger that they had and they just created the whole constituency that nobody knew existed.
BOB GARFIELD: There is an extraordinary scene, it's a focus group staged by the Remain camp but is composed of people who are likely leavers and remainders who wind up screaming at one another making accusations of racism and more.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The past few years have been --ing awful.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Well, I'm sick of it. I'm sick of feeling like nothing. Like I have nothing. Like I know nothing. I'm sick of it. [END CLIP]
JAMES GRAHAM: We forget, now, because the campaign is so dramatic. A member of Parliament is assassinated by somebody who screamed, 'put Britain first, put Britain first.' So something was unleashed by the asking this question and it was a devastating failure of our nation. Politicians to normal people to be able to answer it in a reasonable and considered way.
BOB GARFIELD: As the UK tries to figure out what to do next, will your movie be at risk of being too reductive or too influential at a very, very sensitive time.
JAMES GRAHAM: So if we except that it's journalism's right to, on a daily basis, make suggestions and ask questions and posit theories, why shouldn't I--why shouldn't drama, I think drama has a duty to declare itself as fiction and I think our film does that quite a heightened tone and quite a heightened aesthetic. It's quite theatrical so, you know, but it's not a journalistic document. It's a character study of what motivated these people. The second point is we're not claiming this is the definitive version of this story. I'm hoping that there'll be many, many more plays and films that come out over the next decade that continually adds and contribute to this conversation.
BOB GARFIELD: James many thanks.
JAMES GRAHAM: Your welcome. Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: James Graham is the screenwriter of Brexit. The film airs on HBO at 9:00 Eastern on Saturday January 19th.