“For once in your life, don’t do your duty!” a teary-eyed Patrice Comey (Jennifer Ehle) pleads with her husband, FBI Director James Comey (Jeff Daniels). “Just let it go!” She is begging him not to reopen the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email servers days before the 2016 election, a decision which may have been the final torpedo to sink the Clinton campaign. It’s an extremely embarrassing scene, so much so that my eyes nearly rolled into the back of my head. However, despite a few scenes like this, the Showtime miniseries The Comey Rule doesn’t veer as far into undue hero worship as I expected. While it’s undoubtedly guilty of overly flattering the former FBI director (it’s based on his book A Higher Loyalty), it’s also a surprisingly effective political drama that paints a grim picture of the presidency of Donald Trump without resorting to hyperbole or exaggeration. It’s hard to feel fresh outrage after four years of the president’s relentless assault on every aspect of American life, but The Comey Rule manages to alarm and frighten us anew with its insider perspective of the events of 2016 and early 2017, acting as a bleak cautionary tale to remind us what’s at stake in the weeks remaining until this year’s presidential election.
The miniseries, written and directed by Billy Ray, is broken up into two episodes appropriately titled Night One and Night Two following Comey during the investigation of Clinton’s email servers in 2016 and during the first few months of the Trump presidency in 2017, right up until he was unceremoniously fired by Trump in what has come to be revealed as a fairly clear-cut case of obstruction of justice. (Comey famously learned of his firing by seeing it on a news report on live television while delivering a speech at the Los Angeles FBI field office, and that moment is gut-punchingly recreated in the series.) Jeff Daniels gives an extremely understated performance that echoes Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. His presence is the reason this movie isn’t as cheesy as it should be – we buy the unbelievable naivety of James Comey (as portrayed by this film) because Daniels is the one selling it. He convincingly plays a good-natured straight arrow with such quiet affability that it’s difficult not to feel like Jim Comey is the underdog hero of a Frank Capra film. Daniels’ natural ability to play nice is on full display here, and while it arguably does a slight disservice to history (among other things, Comey was a senior vice president at Lockheed Martin before serving as director of the FBI, so he was hardly an underdog or an outsider), his grounded portrayal makes the miniseries work much better than it should.
Daniels’ co-star Brendan Gleeson has received a great deal of buzz for his role as President Trump (his physical resemblance in the series is uncanny, particularly in profile), and Gleeson absolutely delivers in an unexpected way. Trump is a man who is beyond parody, so Gleeson and Ray make the appropriate decision to do a straightforward imitation. Gleeson faithfully recreates Trump’s speech and mannerisms without going over the top (at least, no more over the top than the real-life Trump actually is). By eschewing the urge to try and humiliate or mock the man, Gleeson’s performance hones in on an aspect of Trump’s personality that is typically overlooked – he is legitimately scary. The scenes in which Comey is stuck in one-on-one conversations with him are unexpectedly tense, with subtle intimidation ebbing and flowing from the stream-of-consciousness nature of Trump’s discourse. It’s like being stuck in a room with a distracted shark, and it’s impossible to relax while he is onscreen. Gleeson’s performance disturbed me in a way that I didn’t expect, having become so disgusted with the real-life Trump that it makes me physically ill to hear his voice.
Daniels and Gleeson are the obvious stars and do the bulk of the heavy lifting, but the miniseries has a strong supporting cast as well. Standouts include Michael Kelly as Comey’s stalwart second in command Andy McCabe, and Holly Hunter as Comey’s sympathetic but more politically savvy boss Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. William Sadler scores a lot of points with his brief but funny role as a perpetually out-of-his-depth Michael Flynn, and there is simply nothing in this world that can prepare you for Joe Lo Truglio as Jeff Sessions. (It’s shockingly effective casting, but I had to gather myself up off the floor after he appeared onscreen.) Peter Coyote plays an entertainingly grizzled Robert Mueller in one scene, and Nicolas Van Burek delivers only a single line as notorious Trump advisor Stephen Miller and still manages to capture the entirety of Miller’s reptilian shitheadery.
The Comey Rule is extremely effective in displaying the chaos of the Trump administration, and portraying just how insidious the spread of Trumpism was through the halls of the White House and beyond. In one scene, Reince Priebus (T.R. Knight) treats a protocol-violating meeting with Comey like the president is a talk show host and Comey is a guest waiting in the green room. Meanwhile, White House counsel Don McGahn casually asks Comey to break the law by revealing a piece of information about an investigation, and when Comey points out as much, McGahn apologizes and then immediately repeats his request. It’s absolutely dizzying, and we feel every bit as bewildered as Comey in these scenes. Trump constantly extends personal invitations to Comey and continuously breaks protocol by directly contacting Comey’s office in violation of the divide that is meant to be in place between the president and the justice department. It very intentionally feels like the mafia, but never in an over-the-top way. Trump’s influence is dark and subversive, and most present in everything that is not said in those closed-door meetings between Comey, the president, and his sycophantic advisors.
The series also does a good job of reminding us how far beyond normal any of this is. The scene in which Trump asks Comey to “forget” the Michael Flynn charges is treated like a scene from The Godfather. You can see the horror on Daniels’ face as the realization of what is happening sinks in. And the scene in which Comey and his team learn that four of Trump’s major campaign advisors have extensive connections to Russian oligarchs and to the Russian government itself almost has a physical weight to it as everyone in the room comes to terms with the extreme possibility that the President of the United States is colluding with a notorious dictator. Four years later, many of us are so jaded that we’ve come to normalize things that deserve to be met with the shock and seriousness expressed by the characters in The Comey Rule. Which leads into another unexpected takeaway – watching the miniseries, I realized how much I’d already forgotten about the Trump presidency. So much has happened since November 2016 that the absolutely tumultuous early days of his administration had completely faded from my mind. (For instance, I totally forgot Carter Page had ever existed.)
What’s also remarkable about The Comey Rule, and part of what makes it so effective, is how it avoids sensationalism. The series doesn’t go right out and say “Trump is dismantling every one of the country’s institutions,” but by plainly showing us the chain of events as they were documented we can draw no other conclusion. Even its moments of optimism are eventually undermined – early on, Sally Yates tells her young assistant that whenever she starts to feel worried about the state of the government, she walks outside and looks at the buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue to remind herself that the government and its institutions will survive no matter who is president. The assistant repeats this wisdom to ousted Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (Scoot McNairy) at the end of the series, to which Rosenstein bitterly responds, “Good for you.” Everyone in The Comey Rule is punished for their faith in the government. Their dedication to the mission of justice and accountability to the American people did not save any of them.
Against all odds, The Comey Rule actually manages to accomplish what should be the primary goal of any dramatization of true-life events – it successfully recontextualizes Trump’s election and early presidency in a way that both offers new insight and reflects on the effects those months have had on the current state of the country. Normally it would be all but impossible to do that in a miniseries based on events that happened only four years ago, but nothing about Trump’s administration has veered anywhere close to normal. It doesn’t fall into the same trap as Oliver Stone’s W., Clint Eastwood’s Sully, or the cringingly embarrassing Mark Wahlberg vehicle Patriot’s Day, which all amounted to “famous people play dress-up and hollowly recreate a story we saw verbatim on the news last year.” There’s certainly shades of that in The Comey Rule, but it ultimately offers us a valuable new perspective on arguably the most important period of modern American history, as well as a chilling revelation of how easily the most outrageous elements of Trump’s presidency have been allowed to take root.
The Comey Rule airs in two parts on September 27th and 28th at 9pm ET/PT on Showtime.