More than the eponymous ex-FBI director himself, “The Comey Rule” is about being duped. Writer and director Billy Ray’s limited series indeed chronicles the most (in)famous moments of James Comey’s tenure at the bureau — from Hillary Clinton’s email debacle to his private dinner with Donald Trump — but it’s more interested in what the man represents than whether he’s heroic. Here’s a public official, vigilant in his protection of the bureau’s institutional integrity and independence, who nevertheless found himself influencing a presidential election and sharing ice cream with the Commander in Chief. Watching Comey on Showtime (played by a perfectly cast Jeff Daniels) is like watching the oblivious lead of a horror movie walk into a haunted house, spot a bloody ghost floating through a door, and then follow the ghost further and further into the basement until there’s no hope for escape.
Comey’s choices — again, as framed by the series — all seem idiotic in hindsight, but they’re all based in a belief in American virtues. As a man who sees his job as “catching bad guys,” he holds himself to a defined moral standard and expects his peers to do the same. Aside from wishing Comey had spent a few more Sunday nights watching “Veep,” what our infuriating protagonist doesn’t know is the same thing very few of us knew prior to the 2016 election: that the old rules don’t apply; that the monster we’re fighting isn’t restricted by the laws of humanity (or human decency); that Donald Trump is coming, and just as a kitchen knife won’t stop a ghost, propriety and “best intentions” can’t be counted on to keep him in check.
Given the apropos juxtaposition of before and after, it’s fitting that “The Comey Rule” is split into two parts: “Night One” spends 90 minutes covering the relevant events leading up to the 2016 election, while “Night Two” spends two full hours covering the next seven months. Such a split also creates the opportunity to theatrically unveil Donald Trump, as the first night just shows his silhouette when early reports of impropriety reach Comey’s ears, before ending on Brendan Gleeson’s Trump parting the curtains of his election night victory party.
Dramatically, this is where things start to pick up. “Night One” is mostly preamble. While the debates and decisions have dire consequences, the reasoning and rationales are too well known at this point to renew much ire, and “The Comey Rule” doesn’t try too hard to get the audience invested in anyone but Comey. So it’s not until Trump arrives and starts throwing the FBI out of whack that scenes carry an extra edge to them. Comey is suddenly on his heels; the confidence he exuded in executing his duties curdles into smug misinterpretation, as it slowly dawns on him how unprepared he really is to do his job under Trump.
Despite Trump’s absence from half the limited series, “The Comey Rule” is still a mano a mano fight between man and monster. Daniels’ deserves as much praise for his scene-by-scene execution as for accepting the role in the first place. Most viewers are probably familiar with his Emmy-winning turn on Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom,” where his principled anchor Will McAvoy served as an all-too-sage savior of truth and reason on TV, but he also played a stalwart real-life hero in Hulu’s “The Looming Tower.” These parts prepared him well for “The Comey Rule’s” more earnest moments, as well as the casual air Daniels can give characters under the most extraordinary circumstances. (When Comey sits for a job interview with President Obama, played by Kingsley Ben-Adir, his candor reads as simultaneously respectful and pompous, which is no easy feat.).
But those same identifiable parts created preconceptions that led many to worry “The Comey Rule” would be a hagiography; a show that over-idolized a public figure who’s made far too many mistakes to deserve canonization. Instead, Daniels excels at deconstructing Comey’s once impervious facade; he’s repeatedly shocked by Trump’s private remarks (the “honest loyalty” dinner scene is one of Daniels’ best), and small quivers in his expression become angry outbursts at his peers, both small enough to be dwarfed by Trump’s outsized personality yet still emphasized to illustrate how hard Comey has been blindsided. Even when he thinks he’s right, he knows he’s outmatched.
Gleeson’s take on Trump is a little harder to admire, even if it’s properly huge. When first introduced, during a pre-inauguration briefing about the Russia investigation at Trump Tower, there’s an actorly precision and gravitas present that doesn’t gel with the rambling madmen we’ve come to know on TV. Really, this is as much Ray’s choice as director as it is Gleeson’s, seeing that the slo-mo arrival and spaced editing seem aimed to get the audience used to this Trump more than capturing the real guy. Little things prove nagging, too, like when Trump pours Comey a glass of water — as if he would ever think of anyone but himself — or when a lengthy monologue actually circles back to the original point, rather than drifting off into Nowhere’s Ville, per usual.
Still, subjective or not, Gleeson settles into the role. The one-on-one dinner showcases the mumbly rants and disconnected train of thought that Comey later references to his staffers, and the Emmy-winning actor nails the slurring overemphasis of specific syllables. (“There were no prostitutessss. There were never any prostitutessss.”) Ray also isn’t shy about amping up the sinister nature of Trump through formal touches. Direct-to-camera news addresses are jarring enough given how tightly the director frames Trump, but there’s also heavy shadows for him to emerge from and ominous music blaring when he’s at his most vile.
All of this helps frame “The Comey Rule” as a monster movie more than a melodrama, which mostly works in its favor. (That Comey, upon learning of his termination via the news, gets an honest-to-God “Rudy” reenactment should tell you enough about its dramatic potential — though it could work as another meta reference to Daniels’ casting.) The show doesn’t offer any breaking news about the Russia investigation, but it’s clear in its message that Trump already destroyed one election — via meddling, blackmail, and all-around discord — and he’s absolutely trying to do it again. Given the polarized nature of politics (that the show itself highlights), it’s unlikely any undecided voters will tune in and be swayed, nor will it stand up as a definitive historical reference once the 2020 election is behind us. But maybe, just maybe, “The Comey Rule” can scare a few audience members into taking further action — before the monster strikes again.
“The Comey Rule” premieres Sunday, September 27 at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime. The second part will air the following night, Monday, September 28 at the same time.
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