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Television

Review: ‘Black Monday’ and ‘Brexit’ deal with catastrophes in very different ways

TV-STUEVER-BLACKMONDAY
Don Cheadle, right, portrays Maurice “Mo” Monroe in “Black Monday.”
(Erin Simkin / Showtime)

National crises with global implications are the setting for two original cable productions that arrive back to back, HBO’s “Brexit” and Showtime’s “Black Monday.” If you like depictions of man-made catastrophes, this is your kind of weekend.

HBO’s film chronicles the winning strategy behind the 2016 “Vote Leave” campaign for Britain to exit the European Union with a dramatic reenactment of events in the year leading up to the stunning referendum results.

Showtime’s comedy series takes place in the year before one of the worst Wall Street crashes in American history, Oct. 19, 1987, a.k.a. Black Monday.

Both productions look at the puppeteers behind the scenes, giving insight into how unconventional strategists engineered massive economic and political disruptions.

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“Brexit,” which premieres Saturday, is the more compelling albeit complicated offering of the two. The 90-minute dramatic reinterpretation of the volatile campaign around the European Union membership referendum shows how real-life strategist Dominic Cummings (played by a pitch-perfect Benedict Cumberbatch) engineered and implemented a plan to make a historically unpopular and ultra conservative issue appeal to the majority of U.K. voters.

Cumberbatch is unrecognizable as the curt and unkempt, antiestablishment Cummings, a man so lacking in charisma and social skills that he’d been drummed out of politics. But he’s brought back into the fold by desperate players who see that the right wing may finally have a chance to break a convention of half a century. Think if it as a Make Britain Great Again campaign.

What unfolds is practically a blueprint of what later happened in the last U.S. presidential campaign. The anger of the country’s shrinking white working class, a fear of outsiders and concerns about the country’s failing national health system weren’t fresh themes, but Cummings found new ways to leverage these old issues and target an entirely untapped bloc of low-information voters via social media.

HBO’s ‘Brexit’ movie plays right into today’s headlines
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Dominic Cummings, the architect of the successful Leave campaign, in a scene from the HBO film “Brexit.”
(Nick Wall / HBO)

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He assembled a team that created fake click-through ads, pointless polls (“Click here if you like football! Click here if you don’t!”) and studied algorithms to gather intel on individuals. Cummings and company then used what they found to tell those potential voters what they wanted to hear — essentially whatever it took to get them to the polls and Vote Leave. Misinformation won the day, and Brexit passed in June of that year.

The film does an impressive job explaining the complicated operation while still delivering a fast-paced and entertaining story, although figuring out who all the parliament and political players are here may be a bit harder to follow for American viewers, Boris Johnson and his tousled mop aside.

It’s stunning, however, to see the parallels between the two elections: how voters were targeted and manipulated, and how some of the same characters, donors and organizations — Steve Bannon, Robert Mercer, Cambridge Analytica — were active in both monumental upsets.

And it’s all certainly timely given the political predicaments both countries find themselves in today with Brexit’s fate still unresolved and the U.S. government in a historic partial shutdown.

The 10-episode “Black Monday,” which premiers Sunday on Showtime, is a fictional tale that follows hot-shot, cocaine-addled trader Maurice “Mo” Monroe (Don Cheadle), who runs one of the industry’s most successful firms (it’s not quite in the top 10 because it’s No. 11). But because it’s the ’80s and greed reigns supreme, he wants to be No. 1.

What follows is a satire that purports to explain why the crash happens, something that’s unclear to this day. Mo and his team are the disrupters in this story. Partner Dawn (Regina King) is the brains and the moral compass while newbie Blair (Andrew Rannells) is the potential whiz kid with a homemade algorithm that will make them all rich.

“Black Monday” isn’t very successful at capturing the zeitgeist of the time beyond sappy music by Bryan Adams, cringe-worthy fashion choices and bright red Lamborghinis. The performers work well together, but they don’t have a lot to work with. The humor could be sharper, and their re-creation of the era and the events that led up to that dark day get bogged down in ancillary antics and gags.

The series does, however, capture how outsiders upended the establishment, and they’ll likely leave a mess in their wake as well, just like Cummings.

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Both productions show how the well-planned campaigns and schemes of a few can, for better or worse, change the world.

‘Brexit’

Where: HBO

When: 9 p.m. Saturday

TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under 14)

‘Black Monday’

Where: Showtime

When: 10 p.m. Sunday

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Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under 17)

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