The Comey Rule operates from a false premise. The Showtime limited series, which will inevitably be watched through each individual’s own political lens, coloring their interpretation of it*, dramatizes former FBI Director James Comey’s memoir about his role in shaping the outcome of the 2016 election and his meetings with President Donald Trump in the months after the election. The show is meant to explain Comey’s thinking with how he handled the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email servers, and get viewers to empathize with the impossible choice he had to make. It posits that Comey is an imperfect but decent man who did what he thought was right and whose biggest flaw is an outsized ego. Which is maybe true, and the real Comey obviously has no shortage of self-regard. But the show fails to adequately contextualize Comey’s mistakes, which are institutional rather than just personal. It’s a failure as an attempt to clarify recent history, made worse by a series of artless creative choices.
The Comey Rule is a two-part limited series neatly divided into Before Trump and After Trump eras. If you are someone who would watch The Comey Rule, you know the story. The first episode covers the run-up to the election, with Comey (Jeff Daniels) authorizing the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was Secretary of State in May and publicly announcing it was closed in July, followed by the fallout from the Russian hack of the Democratic National Convention and subsequent investigation, and Comey’s disastrous disclosure of the reopening of the investigation into Clinton’s emails on Oct. 28, 2016, which is widely accepted as tipping the election in Trump’s favor, and ending on Election Night. The second part dramatizes Comey’s meetings with Trump while he was President-Elect and in the early months of his administration, in which Trump asked for his loyalty and pressured him to drop the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. When Comey refused, Trump fired him.
The show’s problems start with the script, written by Billy Ray, who also directs. There’s so much information that needs to be conveyed in every scene that there’s no room for any flavor in the dialogue, and characters speak in oppressive blocks of text. You’ll feel like you’re drowning in acronyms and procedural rules. It adds up to a “this happened, then this happened, then this happened” style of storytelling that doesn’t find any new insight into why anything happened or make any artistic interpretation of what it means that this happened. It has no sense of irony or cynicism. It’s hamstrung by a journalistic approach that keeps it from having any real emotional understanding.
The lack of emotional understanding and necessity of info-dumping also means there are no characters besides Comey and Trump (Brendan Gleeson). Every character is a real person you know from the news — here’s Holly Hunter as Sally Yates, here’s Joe Lo Truglio as Jeff Sessions, here’s obviously thirtysomething Kingsley Ben-Adir as Barack Obama, bathed in beatific golden light — but none of them are presented as real people, only as points of view. FBI attorney Trisha Anderson (Amy Seimitz), for example, only exists to defend Hillary Clinton in FBI meetings. Comey’s wife Patrice (Jennifer Ehle) only exists to defend Hillary Clinton at home and tell Comey he’s a good man who needs to remember that.
Which brings us to Jeff Daniels as Comey. Since The Newsroom, Daniels has repeatedly played self-satisfied blowhards who love themselves as much as they love America. It’s like he’s stuck in that mode, and he can’t find any nuance in it. He takes complex characters and flattens them into good guys. It’s like he can’t bear to play an asshole who’s actually depicted as an asshole. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (Scoot McNairy), in a painfully corny framing device in which he’s talking to the staffer who’s preparing his office for the incoming DAG after Rosenstein is fired, talks about what a hubristic, careerist narcissist Comey is, but that never comes through in Daniels’ performance. Daniels’ Comey will sometimes ask people in his life if he’s being self-righteous, as if self-awareness excuses his flaw when he goes ahead and acts on it. Daniels’ Comey is presented as an idealistic, dutiful patriot who cares deeply about truth and justice and the people who work with him and for him at the FBI. In the elevator down from a disturbing meeting at Trump Tower, he asks his security guard how his daughter’s recital went. Any reasonable person would watch this extremely forced exchange and say “So what?”James Comey may very well be a nice man on an interpersonal level. But the show presents Comey’s personal “niceness” and “decency” as equally important parts of who he is to the disastrous impact he had as FBI Director, and they just aren’t. Not to America as a whole.
And Comey is not a decent man. The decent thing to do would be to admit that he is more responsible for Trump’s election than any individual outside of the candidates’ campaigns and disappear from public life in shame. The decent thing is not to publish a book and option it into a heroic miniseries in which he’s played by Jeff Daniels, the avatar of well-meaning boomer liberal self-image, and make the TV rounds promoting it. This is the kind of guy who’ll tweet a quote from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez about being publicly subjected to a misogynistic diatribe by a colleague — a woman who this former Republican, hedge fund attorney, and head of the FBI surely disagrees with on almost all material political issues — in order to self-righteously position himself as a decent man who respects women. Comey’s ego is undiminished. He’s as self-serving and self-promoting as Michael Cohen or John Bolton or any other former insider with a book to sell, he just wants you to think he’s different because he doesn’t like Trump. The show simply goes too easy on him.
As Trump, Brendan Gleeson is fine. He gets the voice right. What else is there to say? Trump is a void. We know there’s nothing below the surface, so what interesting bit of character can an actor find?
Even if The Comey Rule worked better as a show, there’s still the issue of it being too soon to do a docudrama about one of the biggest ongoing news stories of the past five years. In a very real way, the 2016 presidential campaign never ended. The limited series ends with a title card superimposed over the Capitol that says “U.S. Intelligence Agencies have now concluded that Russia is actively interfering with the 2020 U.S. election, just as it did in 2016. The President has yet to acknowledge this finding.”
And that summarizes the real purpose of The Comey Rule. It’s not entertainment or historical interpretation, it’s propaganda for people who think Trump’s unwillingness to condemn Vladimir Putin is the worst thing about him. It’s for people who are still talking about the “pee tape,” #Resistance liberals’ favorite conspiracy theory. It’s for people who still have faith in institutions like the FBI, as if Trump is the cause of institutional delegitimization and not a symptom. It exists to make nightly MSNBC viewers who were already going to vote against Trump feel validated. And it exists to vindicate James Comey, a man who does not deserve vindication. Russia’s goal was to undermine the American electoral process, and while they seem to have gotten what they wanted, it’s hard to measure or prove how much Russian interference directly affected the outcome of the 2016 election. But Russia didn’t make James Comey publicly close then reopen the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email servers. That one’s on him.
*My bias: I supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 and 2020 primaries. This review does not reflect the political stance of TV Guide or ViacomCBS. I am writing only as myself, and disclosing my personal affiliation only to help you, the reader, decide whether you want to discount what I say or not based on your own political bias.
TV Guide Rating: 1/5
The Comey Rule airs Sunday, Sept. 27 and Monday, Sept. 28 at 9/8c on Showtime.