The Comey Rule review – are we ready for the first Trump TV drama?

The Comey Rule, a new miniseries from Captain Phillips scribe Billy Ray, airing in two parts, attacks the question of “Who is James Comey?” on two fronts.

Ray shines when working in the literal, informational sense, as he lays out the events of the months surrounding Donald Trump’s election with brisk procedural expertise. But in the soul-searching abstract, an already delicate subject undergoes an ethical portraiture fraught with misjudgments. However wittingly, the writer-director has assembled a dutiful and comprehensive account of Comey’s failures, which nonetheless attempts to vaunt its protagonist as a tragic hero simply too good to survive in this compromised world. As big pills to swallow go, this one’s approximately fist-sized.

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Comey rose to prominence for most Americans in late 2016, when he ordered a top-to-bottom investigation of Hillary Clinton’s private email servers in his capacity as director of the FBI. His decision to do so in an unusually public fashion, and so close to such a tightly contested election, struck many on the left as an attempt to cast a pall on Clinton’s credibility. His eventual conclusion that she hadn’t done anything prosecutable displeased many on the right, and his choice to re-open the case file with mere weeks left on the clock in light of a newly discovered laptop seemed to anger just about everyone. Having eroded all goodwill with those reading the daily headlines bearing his name, he stayed on under Trump for a brief handful of months before an unceremonious sacking. A baffled populace (represented first by a late-night snippet in which Stephen Colbert compares Comey to Harry Potter character Severus Snape) wondered where this man’s allegiances lay, and what the hell he thought he was doing.

Documented with a journalistic attention to minutiae, the behind-the-scenes mechanics of these seismic policy calls make for crackling drama. As in his writing on everything from Flightplan to State of Play to the recent Richard Jewell, Ray demonstrates a proficiency for rendering the insider-talk of an industry comprehensible to outsiders without dumbing it down. The urgently delivered dialogue about packets and memos, while not quite at the high standard set by last year’s The Report, communicates what the real-world professionals find so fascinating in this outwardly dry job. (Ray does also revive his unsavory archetype of the cutthroat woman willing to use her sex appeal to get ahead – Olivia Wilde’s Richard Jewell character reincarnated here as Oona Chaplin’s coarse-mannered staffer Lisa Page.)

In these meetings, Comey makes gargantuan errors in his game-time calls while the advisers in his orbit warn him of the exact outcomes that allowed Trump to seize and amass power. He willfully blinds himself to the far-reaching implications of his management, holding fast to the patently ridiculous premise that the FBI’s movements are informed by no political leaning. His explanation for the protocol-flouting emails announcement goes that the bureau must break with their custom of not commenting on open cases because the American people deserve to know who they might be voting for. (At this same time, he’s looking into possible ties between Russia and the Trump campaign, which somehow don’t merit the same level of alarm.) He reasons that if Clinton got elected and it turned out that the FBI hadn’t divulged the possibility of her law-breaking, no one would ever trust them again. For this to seem nobly impartial, one must accept that the average American currently trusts the FBI, which, again, big pill.

Comey’s staffer Trisha (Amy Seimetz) steps up as the adult in the room when she notes that publicizing the fact they’re looking through Clinton’s computers will tip the scales in favor of Trump. Comey chastises her for even thinking that way, as if his plan is somehow exempt from its obvious partisan realities. This happens again once Trump takes office; Comey’s people beg him to stand against all the blatant violations of the presidency, and he remains confident that the normal mechanisms of government will sort this all out. At his frequent pre-firing dinners with Trump, get-togethers testing the separation between the executive branch and federal law enforcement, Comey stays mum and keeps private notes that will one day take book form. He refuses to realize that doing nothing still counts as doing something. Neutrality, moving trains, et cetera.

Because this series works from Comey’s own tell-some book, A Higher Loyalty, the rationale for his actions lands with the soft touch of an absolution-seeking defense. As Ray would have it, Comey’s problem is that he’s virtuous to a fault. The writing affirms that continuing to play the game and maintain propriety and adhere to tradition was the right thing to do but simply ineffective under Trump. We now have the perspective to see that in actuality, this was a form of weakness, a form of compliance, and a form of stupidity. Comey gets to go out on a note of dignity, learning that he’s been dismissed from a TV in the background while he gives a speech to custodians at FBI headquarters that everyone’s work is vitally important. To the end, he keeps a steadfast faith in the very institutions that have thoroughly and repeatedly bungled their responsibilities under Trump. The trouble is that Ray mirrors this stance even as he scrupulously illustrates the opposite, placing rousing inspirational music over footage of Comey dooming us all. They jointly believe in nothing but the rules – not goodness, not rightness, only standard operating procedure.

A note to the faction of viewers tuning in for Brendan Gleeson’s take on Trump, the first substantive dramatized portrayal of the sitting commander-in-chief from the realm of prestige TV. He only shows up on night two, and when he does, it’s easy to forget that he’s supposed to be the draw. It’s a fine impression and middling performance, better in its particulars than in its essence. Visually, he’s a dead ringer in profile, but looks unnatural in head-on shots. The hair’s wrong, missing the comb-over’s wispy structural complexities. And though Gleeson’s got the tone of voice down pat, he can’t master the cadence, that aimless lilt that saunters from one half-formed thought to the next.

That might be the writing, which feeds faux-Trump lines more coherent than the free-form word-jazz that spills out of his mouth with a semi-cognizant viscosity. His Trump behaves like a common jerk rather than a nihilistic force of spiteful chaos, which is to say that he’s recognizably human. Ultimately, it all comes back to the same surplus of good faith coloring the depiction of Comey. Ray wants to fit the last four years into a framework comprehensible to politics as we know them, when the cruel senselessness plowing through the status quo has always been this administration’s defining feature and greatest weapon. We’re way out where the buses don’t run. No use looking for one to take us home.

  • The Comey Rule starts on Showtime in the US on 27 September and in the UK on Sky Atlantic on 30 September