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Chances are good that if you’re watching Showtime’s uneven but entertaining miniseries The Comey Rule, you’re not tuning in to see if Jeff Daniels is able to convincingly play 6’8″ FBI beanpole James Comey (or to marvel at Jonathan Banks’ uncanny casting as James Clapper).
No, you’re probably curious about how very Irish Brendan Gleeson (the Harry Potter films, In Bruges, Mr. Mercedes and much, much more) does getting under the apricot skin and flaxen combover of Donald Trump. Writer-director Billy Ray treats the former Celebrity Apprentice host like Harry Lime from The Third Man, making him a constant topic of discussion but, for a while at least, a figure captured only fleetingly in the shadows or as a glimpse of wispy hair. In fact, the full Trump is not exposed to audiences until at least 15 minutes into the second of two feature-length installments.
AIR DATE Sep 27, 2020
Though Trump looms and dominates when he’s on-screen, The Comey Rule is primarily focused on the former FBI director, the rare figure who infuriates liberals and conservatives equally (albeit for very different reasons).
To that end, The Comey Rule tracks the FBI’s ill-fated Midyear Exam (Hillary’s emails) and Crossfire Hurricane (Russian election interference) investigations, creating characters and occasionally personalities for demonized and deified figures like Sally Yates (Holly Hunter), Andrew McCabe (Michael Kelly), notorious FBI lovers Peter Strzok (Steven Pasquale) and Lisa Page (Oona Chaplin), Michael Flynn (William Sadler), Jeff Sessions (Joe Lo Truglio) and Rod Rosenstein (Scoot McNairy), who ultimately ended up being forced into the role of Brutus to Comey’s Caesar. If even reading those names triggers nausea, cold sweats and compulsive yelping of, “Too soon!” The Comey Rule definitely will not be for you.
As for Ray himself, he isn’t here to bury or praise this Caesar. Those seeking confirmation that Comey is a villain, either for torpedoing Hillary Clinton in the lead-up to the 2016 election or complicating Trump’s early tenure with the Steele dossier or other Russian inquiries, will find it. Ditto anybody who chooses to view Comey as a paragon of the ideals of service, however self-destructive.
Ultimately, what Ray does is take Comey at his word. It isn’t just that most of the best, juiciest moments and details in The Comey Rule come directly from Comey’s 2018 book A Higher Loyalty — from beat-by-beat recollections of an ill-fated Trump-Comey dinner to little grace notes like Comey refusing to cut in line at the FBI cafeteria — but rather how completely Ray accepts the notion of Comey as a man without ulterior motive. That’s not the same as being an apologist for the man. Putting a dozen trained intelligence operatives in a room for counsel and then ignoring them time after time doesn’t become the right thing to do just because you do it for what you think are the right reasons.
There’s an interpretation of Comey as power-hungry or attention-starved that Ray eschews to show a man of decency and patriotism who’s so committed to his own moral certitude that he can destroy precedent, screw up an entire election and still feel confident about the decision. Daniels plays this righteousness and decorum to the hilt. He and Ray make no effort to simulate Comey’s towering physicality or emulate his speech patterns, instead building a performance around the different ways he responds to different people with different codes — from Trump to his own Hillary-supporting wife, Patrice (elevated beyond thin writing by Jennifer Ehle).
The Comey Rule is also split between two not always harmonized modes of storytelling. The FBI side of the narrative — the focus of the first night, which has Kingsley Ben-Adir as an oddly young Barack Obama, but Hillary Clinton appearing only in TV news footage — calls to mind Ray’s Breach and Shattered Glass: fairly serious-minded, wonky tributes to men (and occasionally women) who give themselves entirely to jobs, invisible in success and notorious in failure. This side of the series features sad-eyed, jaws-set turns by the likes of Kelly, Steve Zissis, Amy Seimetz and Peter Coyote, whose lone scene as Robert Mueller, passing the FBI baton to Comey, sets him up for a sequel.
The second night of the series, though, moves more into the territory of Jay Roach’s HBO semi-comedies (or Showtime’s own generally forgotten The Loudest Voice), full of broad and frequently silly performances by familiar actors having a goof as easily mockable political figures, mostly from the Trump administration. I’m not sure that what Lo Truglio or T.R. Knight as Reince Priebus are doing is inhabiting a character, but there can still be fun had watching them. That said, the detour into caricature isn’t what Ray does best and instantly opens The Comey Rule up to accusations of partisanship.
Trump is almost certain to hate Gleeson’s take, but in many ways this is a generous read on our current president amid a sea of impersonations, some note-perfect and some — like Alec Baldwin’s SNL turn — seemingly designed to antagonize Trump through their flimsiness. With squinting, sneering, sniffling intensity, Gleeson plays Trump as a clever and calculating bully of weaker men, blindly obtuse one second and acutely manipulative the next. He’s a lumbering, land-bound, poorly dressed manatee of a man, but to be underestimated at your own peril. Gleeson’s accent and intonations waver, yet he captures an interiority the real Trump rarely exposes. It’s a mediocre impression and possibly a great performance.
Other standouts include a tragically hopeful Hunter and McNairy, whose weaselly, insecure Rosenstein, at times more Salieri than Brutus, represents an ideal compromise of tones that The Comey Rule hits only occasionally.
A great kerfuffle arose about Showtime’s initial decision to schedule The Comey Rule for after the 2020 election, while Ray and company wanted to premiere before. Now it will air in late September, but I’m not quite sure to what end. There is both good and bad in this miniseries, but what I found most interesting was how its meaning shifts to fit your perception, and not the other way around. Nearly everybody will unpack their own baggage all over the series — the tag line “Whatever side you’re on, you only know half the story” really isn’t accurate — and anybody who is politics- or news-averse will be disappointed if they’re hoping to watch Daniels and Gleeson parry their way through a political Dumb & Dumbererer.
Stars: Jeff Daniels, Brendan Gleeson, Michael Kelly, Jennifer Ehle, Scoot McNairy, Holly Hunter, Jonathan Banks, Steven Pasquale, Oona Chaplin, Amy Seimetz, Peter Coyote, Kingsley Ben-Adir
Written & Directed By: Billy Ray from the book by James Comey
Airs Sunday, September 27, and Monday, September 28, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Showtime.
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