A half-decade ago, if you had told the likes of Andrew McCabe, Sally Yates, Rod Rosenstein, James Clapper, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page they’d be characters in a premium cable two-part docudrama series, they would have thought your crystal ball was cracked.
If you’d told Donald Trump about such a project, he would have responded along the lines of, “I’m not surprised. Nobody knows more about television than Trump. A lot of people are saying this show could win 30 Emmys, but you won’t hear that from the Fake News.”
And if you had informed James Comey he’d be the lead character in such a series, one can picture Comey saying: “I can’t imagine anybody wanting to watch a show about me. My life is very boring. I’m just a humble public servant. [Pause.] I think the best way to get ahead of this is for me to release a statement and call a press conference.”
Showtime’s “The Comey Rule,” divided into two, feature-length sections, premieres Sunday and Monday. It’s based on Comey’s book on the same name, so you can imagine who emerges as the most sympathetic character in a saga so fresh in our memory the paint has yet to dry.
Writer-director Billy Ray has penned some of the best “based-on-a-true-story” tales of the last 20 years, including “Shattered Glass,” “Captain Phillips” and “Richard Jewell,” which makes it all the more disappointing when “The Comey Rule” turns out to be a well-filmed but plodding and overbaked melodrama offering little in the way of insight or provocative food for thought.
Part One focuses mainly on “Midyear Exam,” the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails on the eve of the 2016 election. Jeff Daniels, one of our finest actors, makes no attempt to look or sound like Comey, opting instead for a muted, straight-arrow interpretation of Comey as a highly respected, lifelong Republican who was well-liked by his close circle of colleagues and associates, including Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates (Holly Hunter) and FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe (Michael Kelly).
Even the blunt-speaking FBI agent Lisa Page (Oona Chaplin) holds Comey in high regard, though she favors much more aggressive tactics than Comey advocates as his team carefully navigates the task of conducting an investigation of the Secretary of State even as she’s involved in a contentious election with Republican challenger Donald Trump.
With the obligatory Legal Political Thriller score pounding home the significance of every new development and Comey responding to bombshells from his staff by quietly commanding, “Say more,” we’re constantly reminded Comey is committed to doing the right thing; time and again, when Jim comes home to his wife Patrice (Jennifer Ehle) and their four daughters, they remind him decisions he makes could swing the election to Trump — but no matter how much it hurts Comey personally, he vows to never let politics enter into his decision-making.
Other than a few ominously framed shots that make the president look like the villain in a “Friday the 13th” movie, we don’t see Brendan Gleeson’s Trump until a few minutes into Part 2, which shifts the focus to the battle of egos and morals and ethics and the law between the newly elected POTUS and the Boy Scout of an FBI director (and we know how that worked out for everybody). Gleeson is buried under a cotton candy mountain of hair and prosthetics and makeup, and he growls and sniffs between delivering lines that make him sound like a cross between Trump and Don Corleone. We see dramatic re-creations of Trump’s infamous one-on-one meetings with Comey, including a meal for two that plays like a Blumhouse version of “My Dinner With Andre,” with Comey looking on in horror as Trump prattles on about loyalty and spoons his ice cream like it’s his last meal.
Political junkies and cable news regulars will recognize the names of nearly every character in these stories. There’s Jonathan Banks from “Better Call Saul” as James Clapper! Peter Coyote as Robert Mueller! Scoot McNairy as the sniveling Rod Rosenstein! Michael Hyatt as Loretta Lynch! And hey, isn’t that Joe Lo Truglio from “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” as the weasely Jeff Sessions? Some fare better than others — Banks is perfect as Clapper — but for the most part, these are smallish, stunt roles, with everyone serving as supporting players for Comey’s version of events, which nearly always paint Comey in the best and most sympathetic light.
Comey is no doubt a good man who wanted to do the right thing, even if it swayed an election, even if it cost him his job. “The Comey Rule” does a fine job of stating the case, on the record. What it doesn’t do is go beyond the surface in its portrayal of Comey or its re-creations of events we already know all too well.