The Comey Rule: Review
When I sat down to watch the trailer for the two-part HBO miniseries The Comey Rule, my initial reaction was that this was a trailer for an SNL-style parody of James Comey’s tenure as FBI Director and his infamous meetings with President Trump. From the melodramatic voice over to the list of well-known actors inhabiting a plethora of high-profile roles, you would be forgiven for thinking this was yet another parodical take on Trump and the chaos left by his administration. The Comey Rule is no such parody, however, although it does depict the Trump presidency with farcical glee.
The miniseries is one of the first to jump in and dramatise the Trump era. Coming so soon after the events it depicts – indeed, while Trump is still in office – The Comey Rule hits uncomfortably close to home. A political biopic does not usually arrive on screens so soon after the events have occurred (indeed, the miniseries was originally planned for release after November’s election); but these are unusual and dangerous times after all, and so perhaps a feeling of discomfort at a simple television drama is the least of our current worries.
It goes without saying that in being based on Comey’s 2018 memoir A Higher Loyalty, The Comey Rule presents James Comey in an extremely sympathetic and favourable light. He is the hero who faces up to the corruption, ineptitude and malevolent leadership of the Trump administration; he makes tough decisions to uncover the truth; he juggles the machinations of political allies with the challenges of family life and his patriotic commitment to the American people.
James Comey is a controversial figure – or at least a figure who made some tough and controversial decisions. With the first half of The Comey Rule depicting Comey’s management of two major crises in the year of 2016 – the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, and the Russian hacking and election interference scandal – the story quickly centres his motivations, foibles and decision-making processes. Jeff Daniels gives a restrained and controlled performance as the eternally truth-seeking, staunch moralist who, within the drama that is presented to viewers, is the story’s chief protagonist – and Daniels grabs this fact and runs with it.
The presence of high-calibre actors such as Holly Hunter and Michael Kelly (the latter, as a House of Cards alumnus, adding to the political drama atmosphere) injects authenticity to proceedings, and indeed everyone involved brings their A-game (including Kingsley Ben-Adir who, as President Obama, resists the temptation to deliver an impression rather than a performance). With such an expansive cast, the onscreen names and position titles come in handy – only the most knowledgeable of political enthusiasts could be expected to instantly recognise every single player who appears onscreen.
For all the tense conversations in moodily lit corridors, offices and hotel rooms, it is safe to say that the majority of viewers are here for one reason and one reason only: Trump – or more accurately, Brendan Gleeson’s take on Trump. It’s not until an hour into the first episode that Gleeson is seen (briefly, from behind), and we don’t see his face or hear him speak until the second. But the build-up towards his entrance across the first half of the story is tense and unsettling, for once he does becomes president and meets Comey, all of Trump’s childish malevolence and incoherence are on show – and story-wise it’s all downhill from there.
For if part one takes a sharp and serious look at Comey’s handling of FBI investigations and the repercussions of the fraught moral situations he finds himself in, then part two charts the rocky establishment and subsequent decline of Comey’s relationship with Trump. Brendan Gleeson’s take on the oft-imitated president captures all the menace and hyperbole of the real-life man, complemented by an array of clearly well-rehearsed tics and mannerisms. In a review for the miniseries, The Guardian writes that Gleeson's Trump "is evocative of a charmless version of Marlon Brando as Don Corleone in The Godfather" – and Trump, as in reality, is certainly the brooding villain of the piece (“This is how a mob boss talks” says one character), one whose absence of moral principles stands in stark contrast to Comey’s unswerving rectitude.
The score – full of mournful pianos – is very traditional and dips into melodrama a little too often, just as the story does on occasion, notably at its conclusion. The framing device – where Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein gives a junior staffer with a play-by-play recount of events – is not necessary, and that screen-time could have been better deployed giving extra layers to other parts of the narrative. And as pleasant as the moments of everyday domesticity between Comey and his wife and children are, those moments are rote and lacking in innovation – confessing his love for his wife, smiling at his kids’ snappy banter, etc.
As a political drama, The Comey Rule is fairly light-on and by-the-books, containing nothing that would revolutionise the genre. It is as a character study of Comey, however, that The Comey Rule sets its sights, and through that lens excels. The Comey Rule also depicts with verve the puzzling ineptitude and arrogance of figures in the Trump administration – most notably Trump himself – and at least within the bounds of these three-and-a-half hours, gives us a well-intentioned yet ultimately ill-fated protagonist in the form of James Comey.