The Comey Rule is a Showtime two-parter starring Jeff Daniels as former FBI director James Comey, insert Dumb and Dumber joke here. Potential viewers wondering if the miniseries is sympathetic to the man — who was a public whipping boy for the part he played in swaying the 2016 presidential election — should know that writer-director Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) adapted Comey’s memoir A Higher Loyalty, and invited the man himself to the film set. So there’s that. But whether this story, the first high-profile dramatization of the Trump-era shitshow, is relevant four years and countless Trump-related social and political tragedies after its events, remains to be seen.
THE COMEY RULE: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
Opening Shot: In an archival TV clip, Stephen Colbert compares Comey to Severus Snape, because we don’t know if he’s a good guy or a bad guy.
The Gist: It’s 2013, and James Comey (Jeff Daniels) picks out a smart suit and tie and heads out of the house. “Say hi to Barack for me,” his daughter says. He walks into President Obama’s (Kingsley Ben-Adir) office and immediately confesses that he supported John McCain and Mitt Romney. That doesn’t ruffle Obama’s feathers at all — if he hires Comey as FBI director, it’ll lead to “thoughtful disagreement,” Obama asserts. When the president asks why Comey doesn’t want a job in the more lucrative private sector, he responds plaintively, “Money is nice. Stopping bad guys is better.” Wait, is this guy Superman? Or Captain America?
Either way, it sure feels like this is the beginning of the end of civility, the last stand of norms and procedures. Comey replaces a gruff Robert Mueller (Peter Coyote) at the FBI, where he establishes himself as a loveable guy who chats earnestly and meaningfully with employees in the cafeteria, and a cool, collected boy scout-type who gives inspiring, anti-cynical speeches at every field office in the country. His primary directive as director is to remain — please don’t laugh, please please don’t — non-partisan. Now it’s 2015, and he cocks his bat to meet the first narrative curveball as the show turns into But Her Emails: The Movie. Comey and his top deputy Andrew McCabe (Michael Kelly) lead a team of agents investigating Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her stint as Secretary of State. Shit job, but someone’s gotta do it, and Comey’s there, calmly handling it, no fluster on his face whatsoever, then heading home at 6, 6:30 so his employees don’t work too late because they never leave before the boss does, to his wife Patrice (Jennifer Ehle) and daughters, who all think the Hillary scandal is overblown and part of a grossly sexist political hitjob.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump (Brendan Gleeson, although we don’t see his face until part two) lands the Republican presidential nomination, and his legion of greasy flea-eating sewersquib cronies begin making appearances: Michael Flynn (William Sadler) pals around Moscow with Putin, George Papadapoulos (Anthony Bowden) chums up with Russian shadies, etc. There are more of the soon-to-be-president’s poo-flecked pals, but there are so many, I lost track of them in real life and while watching this show. Kushner, Manafort, Trump Jr. — they’re just a homogenous blob of moral destitution, and I direct my disgust in the general direction of all the whiteness.
Anyway, and you know this, but the Hillary email thing goes away and comes back, forcing Comey into a series of decisions that involve him one shit sandwich or another shit sandwich. So he chooses the least shitty of the shit sandwiches, announcing the re-opening of the Hillary email investigation days before the election, as his non-partisan duty tells him to do. He then gamely absorbs the hatred from decent people and admiration from the crumbs who think Trump is right on with his criminally disingenuous “crooked Hillary” crapola. It gets worse, as the show becomes Pee Tape: The Movie, and Comey has to ask what a “golden shower” is as Trump’s Russian connections come into focus. He steadfastly and bland-facedly remains apolitical and committed to the law, in a world that’s about to render such ideals tragically obsolete. “I’m not a politician,” he says, and sad violins play on the soundtrack. He pretty much got Trump elected. So much for stopping the bad guys, Comey. End part one.
Our Take: Is it possible to set aside COVID-19 and racism and the literal fires of climate change and Russia interfering with the 2020 election in order to “enjoy” The Comey Rule? It’s too soon to look back and laugh, so Ray doesn’t stage this as an Adam McKay-style cynical horror-farce. And it’s too soon to cry, because Trump may be voted out in a few weeks, and Ray and Daniels pushed hard for Showtime to air the series before this year’s election, so people can see how they rendered Trump as a villain who leads the country like a mob boss. Which is pretty much objectively true.
So Ray went the earnest route, and took the title of Comey’s memoir at face value. Daniels’ Comey is a naive idealist, a plaintive family man and an open-door guy who’s a great boss. And maybe, beneath Daniels’ bland expressions, he’s lost and clueless, not at all cut out for Trump’s mad-dog chaos-world. Or maybe he’s a true patriot beneath Daniels’ blankness. The actor leaves it up to interpretation, so both may be true. He’s a man of manners. He loves his wife and daughters unendingly. He’s friendly. He puts himself on equal ground with his employees. He’s a man of the people. He’s truly Trump’s foil.
Part one of The Comey Rule takes place pre-election, and part two, 30 minutes longer and clocking in at two hours, dramatizes the turmoil leading up to Comey’s firing, including the infamous one-on-one dinner during which Trump asked him to pledge his loyalty. It’s a cluttered three-and-a-half hours, with drop-ins on then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (Scoot McNairy) narrating Comey’s story to an aide (Dalmar Abuzeid), an affair between two FBI agents on Comey’s team and a myriad of other supporting faces (including Holly Hunter as former Attorney General Sally Yates). The revelation of Trump is kind of distracting, definitely novel and absolutely grotesque and terrifying in Gleeson’s hands; it’s a thankless role, because how do you un-caricature a caricature? It’s the first straight-and-serious rendering of him on camera, and I wonder if it might’ve been more effective if he was depicted more along the lines of Jaws, with limited direct screen time, and the soundtrack thrumming ominously as his absurd coif breaks the surface of the water.
Ray’s goal, I believe, is to undistort Comey’s image. The filmmaker doesn’t shy away from schmaltz or on-the-nose dialogue, and the film’s only real ambiguity is Daniels’ performance. I’m not sure it’s entirely convincing. Ray definitely steers it away from being F— You: The Movie, although it’ll still be that for the weary and hardened who seek a scapegoat for the events of the past four years. It’s kind of fascinating in its timing, the appeal of its cast and its dramatic reiteration of news headlines. It’s also not much fun, but you probably knew that already.
Sex and Skin: None.
Parting Shot: A shot of Trump and his hair from behind as he parts a curtain and walks on stage.
Sleeper Star: Trump lickspittle Reince Priebus is played by T.R. Knight as a comically weaselly naif. Maybe that’s funny, maybe it’s not funny. Who knows.
Most Pilot-y Line: From part one: A doctor tells Comey, fresh from some medical tests, that Hillary Clinton deserves to be investigated, and Patrice quips, “That ‘crooked Hillary’ stuff is sticking to her. Now it’s part of your colonoscopy results.”
A rich one from Trump in part two: “My behavior has been unimpeachable.”
Our Call: STREAM IT. I’m on the fence with The Comey Rule — it’s not revelatory, and mostly tells us what we already know. When it’s entertaining, it seems almost unintentional. But ultimately, it’s a curiosity watch that’ll compel you to stick with it through its entirety.
Stream The Comey Rule on Showtime