The Comey Rule

Brendan Gleeson in The Comey Rule.
Brendan Gleeson in The Comey Rule.
Photo: Ben Mark Holzberg/CBS Television Studios/Sh


The Comey Rule




3/5 Stars


The true story of James Comey, the FBI director who was appointed by Barack Obama but attained notoriety for first investigating Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential election – a move that is believed by some to have led to her losing to Donald Trump – and then for leading the Russian investigation (operation "Crossfire Hurricane") that earned him the ire of Trump supporters.


(Note: This review is from the perspective of someone who thinks that Donald Trump is pretty much the devil. If you're a big Trump fan, you probably won't like this review. Or the miniseries itself, for that matter. Sorry not sorry.)

Presented in this country in four 50-minute episodes, the Comey Rule was originally aired as two feature-length episodes in the United States. This is significant because while there is something to be said for being able to spread out what is sometimes a fairly slow retelling of very, very recent history, the miniseries makes the most sense when viewed as one of two halves.

The first half is a slow political drama that covers the period from James Comey's appointment as head of the FBI by then-president Barack Obama to the moment where – spoiler alert – Donald Trump won the 2016 election. The second half is a more focused character-drama-turned-thriller that revolves around Comey having to deal with one half of the country hating him for helping Trump win the presidency and the other half for investigating the Trump campaign for their ties to Russian political actors. Most crucially, though, the second part introduces the great Brendan Gleeson as the malignant force behind the whole story: Donald Trump.

The first half, it has to be said, is less than great. There's a very real sense that writer/director Billy Ray is doing his utmost to ape Aaron Sorkin. The treacly Sorkinesque sentiment is there, and Ray doesn't do too much to hold your hand as he runs through events steeped in the minutia of American politics, but he sorely lacks Sorkin's razor-sharp wit or ability to keep things moving. The story itself is obviously interesting – if very familiar to those of us who have followed what has gone on in the now-not-so United States for the past few years – and there are some great performances, but the whole thing just feels sterile and, considering just how recent these events are, largely unnecessary.

Stick with it, though, and you'll be rewarded with a second half that despite being made by exactly the same people and starring (almost) the exact same cast of characters, is infinitely superior to what came before it. There's still a sense of it being too soon to dramatise events that are this familiar and this recent but, then again, considering the concerted effort to get this out before the 2020 election, it would seem that the producers of the Comey Rule – and most especially Jeff Daniels – have less faith in the American public actually knowing what was going on around them for the past five years than I do.  

This slight niggle aside, the second half of the series takes what was established in the first half and runs with it; turning a fairly rote political drama into something incredibly compelling.

What's true of both halves, though, is that you do get a good sense of who James Comey is. This being based on his own book, it's obviously more than a little biased, but this depiction of a basically honourable man getting hanged by his own insistence on following the rules despite everything suggesting he needs to be more flexible and more aware of the political realities of what he's wading into is hardly entirely flattering.

Weirdly, Jeff Daniels doesn't exactly convince in the role as he comes across less like the real Comey and more like the Newsroom's Will McAvoy – another problem with trying to depict someone who is still pretty solidly in the public eye in the States - but his command of the screen is as faultless as ever. Indeed, there isn't too much to complain about when it comes to the cast. The only false note here is up-and-coming British actor, Kinsley Ben-Adir, as Obama – he simply doesn't capture any of Obama's swagger, self-confidence or intelligence, and is a good fifteen years too young for the role.

The rest of the top-flight supporting cast (Holly Hunter, Scoot McNairy, Oona Chaplin, Michael Kelly, William Sadler, Joe Lo Truglio, and Jonathan Banks) actually do a better job at losing themselves in their roles than Daniels or Ben-Adir, but because of the general stiffness of the first episode/couple of episodes, they only really come into their own after Donald Trump is elected. 

Much like the miniseries itself.

Fundamentally, the problem with the first two episodes (let's keep with the Showmax numbering here) is that they consist of the type of "mature" storytelling that is mostly just code for a bunch of serious people in serious suits talking seriously to (or at) each other about their serious jobs. It's all very sincere, it presents the real-life events perfectly efficiently, and it sets the scene for the much improved final 90 minutes, but it's all a bit drab and unexciting, while also lacking the space to allow the characters to breathe and convince as actual human beings.

The insertion of Trump into the real world has been, as a rule, disastrous but even his biggest critics have to admit that he certainly made things interesting. The latter is certainly true here. But on a purely dramatic level, there is absolutely nothing disastrous about Brendan Gleeson's Donald Trump. Shocking that he almost passed on the role – and ultimately only took it on the agreement that he wouldn't be part of the series' marketing.

After five years of mostly comedic impressions of Trump, Gleeson's take is genuinely shocking. There is absolutely nothing funny about his Donald Trump as he shoots straight past Trump's distracting buffoonery to get to the narcissistic, insecure, insane mob-boss that Donald Trump so clearly actually is. His dialogue is often lifted straight from the mouth of the real deal, but despite Gleeson perfectly (if sometimes, inevitably, broadly) capturing the stance and mannerisms of the man he is playing, the insane things that he says are drained of all their obvious silliness and infused instead with a deranged menace that gives every scene he is in the feel of not just thriller but an outright horror movie.

By ever so slightly deepening his voice, stressing Trump's New York accent and dampening the more performative aspects of the former president, Gleeson makes his Donald Trump genuinely terrifying, while still being, quite convincingly, Donald Trump. It's a performance that's bound to rub some the wrong way but what's brilliant about this performance is that it isn't an exact impression of the real Trump but is instead a depiction of him that captures how James Comey clearly sees him. It also gives a real dramatic bite to a series that started off desperately in need of it.

The centrepiece of the series is a depiction of probably the most striking encounter that Comey had with his former boss. It's a story Comey has relayed often but, basically, Trump calls him for a private dinner and after trying to butter him by dwelling on Comey's admittedly rough treatment by the press (except, of course, followed by "no one has been more unfairly treated by the press than Trump"), the president pressures Comey to pledge his loyalty to him. Everything that James Comey holds sacred – in particular the independence of the FBI – is under threat but he simply doesn't have it within him to put the president in his place. The scene tells us everything we need to know about Comey's admitted failings, but the portrayal of Trump as a deadly mix of Hannibal Lecter and Vito Corleone makes for startling, scary stuff that you totally believe would turn even the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation into a puddle of jelly.

It's scenes like this that gives the second half of the miniseries its power. It's just a pity that such scenes were mostly absent from the first couple of episodes. I can't, as such, fully recommend it, but if you're interested in this stuff at all, it's entirely worth sitting through the competent but underwhelming first two episodes to get to the main meal. 


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