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Even though James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty won’t be officially released until Tuesday, his memoir is already spring’s biggest blockbuster.
It has generated tons of talking-head TV (even though most of them have only seen excerpts) and an endless stream of hostile tweets from President Donald Trump. It might even change the political dynamic in Washington toward the president, maybe even help bring down the president. It is also an important book with larger things to say about leadership (or the lack thereof), the rule of law and how our corrosive political climate is hurting the country. But given that it has already attracted lots of interest from Hollywood, will it make a good movie or miniseries?
A Higher Loyalty does what a good memoir — and a good movie — should do: It puts you in the room and shows what people are like in private. Comey once missed an Oval Office meeting because he had to go the bathroom (the toilet just outside the Oval Office is “the highest potty in the land,” he jokes). When he got back, he found that President George W. Bush had started the meeting early (a regular habit) and Comey, then the Deputy Attorney General, was too afraid to enter late. President Barack Obama would sometimes roll his eyes at Vice President Joe Biden’s habit of derailing meetings with tangential points. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft’s wife Jane stuck her tongue out at Chief of Staff Andy Card and White House counsel Alberto Gonzales as they left her husband’s hospital room after pressuring him to sign an illegal surveillance order. Or that the real Situation Room is really small and looks nothing like it does on TV (“If the leather chairs are jammed together, maybe ten people can join the president and they will all need breath mints”).
In this context, the scenes with Trump, which have caught the most attention, aren’t gratuitous or mean; they are great, vivid writing. There’s Trump’s habit of opening conversations with fulsome (and seemingly insincere) praise, his habit of saying everything is the greatest or the best. Of the White House, he told Comey, “This is luxury. I know luxury.” And there is Trump’s obsession with denying the rumor from the Steele Dossier that he had two Russian prostitutes engage in a golden shower while in Moscow for the Miss Universe parent. Comey awkwardly has to listen to Trump as he asks if he looks like a guy who needs a hooker and then presses Comey to get the FBI to prove the story is false because there’s a “one percent chance” Melania might think it is true.
The Trump scenes don’t exist in a vacuum. Comey shrewdly uses all the famous cases he’s been involved in — prosecuting the Gambino crime family, the Martha Stewart insider trading scandal, the Scooter Libby perjury investigation, the Bush administration’s envelope-pushing war on terror, the Clinton email investigation and Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 election — to set the reader up to see that Trump is unfit to be president. Each story is told to make a point — the folly of gratuitous lying (Stewart), confusing preening for the camera with leadership (Rudy Giuliani), the danger of failing to respect the rule of law (the War on Terror, especially Dick Cheney’s actions) — that will later be used in the case against Trump. It is easy to see why Comey was such a good prosecutor. The book is as much a lethally effective brief against President Trump as it is a memoir.
Still, there a lot of reasons to suspect A Higher Loyalty might not make the transition to the screen smoothly. Start with Comey himself. He’s a straight arrow, an overgrown boy scout, an earnest no-drama kind of guy. These are admirable qualities in real life, but onscreen they might make for a boring and one-dimensional character. There are half a dozen crackerjack scenes in the book (the Ashcroft bedside showdown, Comey’s dinner with Trump, learning about his firing), but turning them into a coherent story is going to be tricky. The tales that set up Comey’s moral character — prosecuting the mob, illegal 9/11 surveillance — don’t lend them themselves to quick takes, and just diving into the Trump stuff doesn’t feel like it would provide enough context. This feels like a problem only Aaron Sorkin could solve with one of his patented flashback-heavy scripts (see: Social Network, Jobs). A miniseries might be the answer, but there might not be enough interest in his life to sustain viewer interest.
The bigger problem is that Comey is a bit player in the Trump story. There is so much that is important to the story that doesn’t make it into Comey’s memoir because he wasn’t there. He wasn’t there when Sen. Mitch McConnell refused to issue a joint statement about Russian interference. He wasn’t in on any of the Trump White House conversations about responding to Russia or why he was fired, and wasn’t on Air Force One when Trump issued the misleading statement about Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with the Russians. It’s the reason that All The President’s Men is a classic and Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, the 2017 movie about Deep Throat, flopped. It’s why Hulu’s current Looming Tower series works, but one based just on FBI agent Ali Soufan’s story would feel incomplete. Or why Mark Wahlberg’s Patriots Day had to invent a fictional cop to tell the story of the Boston Marathon bombing, because no one person was everywhere during the bombing to the end of the manhunt.
Movies about sprawling scandals like the one engulfing the Trump administration can’t rely on the recollections of just one participant to succeed. They need a huge multi-character narrative to capture the whole story. Comey’s memoir alone can’t do the trick.
Don’t wait for the movie. Read the book.
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