Is it possible for something to feel dated and too soon at the same time? Watching The Comey Rule, Showtime’s two-part limited series (premiering tonight) about former FBI Director Jim Comey’s rocky four-year tenure straddling the Obama and Trump administrations, is in some ways like stepping into a distant period piece. In the opening minutes, we meet Comey on the morning of his job interview with Obama at the White House. Comey (played by Jeff Daniels) stares into his closet, mulling which navy suit to wear. His wife eventually picks one for him. The banality of the moment, the fat luxury of that concern — What, no masks? No wildfires raging? No protesters marching and helicopters circling? — is almost comical.
A few scenes later, the action shifts to the Oval Office. Off-camera we hear a familiar-sounding voice, a warm baritone that slices into the consciousness like a razor. President Obama (Kingsley Ben-Adir, admirably game in the role) is on the phone, reassuring some governor or other public official somewhere out there in his America that help is on the way. Then he welcomes Comey — a Republican who’s previously served in the Geroge W. Bush administration — with a firm handshake, eye contact, civilized conversation. It’s 2013. Eight years ago. But a time that feels so close you could touch it, like it’s all happening on the other side of a sliding glass door. Knowing the cascade of chaos and misfortune that descends in the near future, you might have to look away from the screen.
The Comey Rule is not a perfect show, but then James Comey is not a perfect guy. He seems to know as much, having confessed in his 2017 memoir, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, on which this dramatization is based, that he can be “stubborn, prideful, overconfident, and driven by ego.” For anyone who left that book unable to square such self-awareness with the author’s refusal to cop to his bungled handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe — in which he made not one but two unprecedented public statements about the investigation in the precarious weeks preceding the 2016 election, first that her conduct, while not criminal, was “extremely careless,” then that the bureau would be suddenly reopening the case — this historical moment won’t be an easy place to revisit.
The producers seem to share this ambivalence about their hero. Our narrative guide through the series, and the first character we meet, is not Comey but a weaselly Rod Rosenstein (Scoot McNairy), the Deputy Attorney General who drafted the so-called “Comey memo” justifying the director’s firing in 2017. Off the bat, he calls Comey a showboat and a Boy Scout.
Indeed, in the early going, the man comes off as a kind of pious schoolboy in custom suits (presumably — the guy’s 6-foot-8). The script seizes on details recounted in the book: that Comey was a New Age-y boss who instructed his 37,000 FBI employees in an introductory speech to “love someone — it’s good for you.” He likes to disarm people by asking them what their favorite Halloween candy is. When he gets angry, he says something “frosts” him. He doesn’t know what a golden shower is, bless his heart. He can also be haughty, even when he’s well-intentioned. Daniels plays his rectitude on a spectrum that ranges from pensive and priestly to rigidly performative.
The story hits all the inflection points of the 2016 election and its aftermath: Russia’s hack of the DNC; Pizzagate; Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s impromptu meeting with Bill Clinton on a tarmac in Phoenix; the discovery of Clinton emails on a laptop belonging to Anthony Weiner; the Steele dossier. Comey and his team are like a staggered boxer in the ring, being battered with crises. Every time they pull themselves off the canvas, they’re hit with an uppercut.
Along the way, we’re introduced to a murderer’s row of actors doing their best West Wing: House of Cards alum Michael Kelly as Andrew McCabe; an underutilized Holly Hunter as Attorney General Sally Yates (she mostly gets to offer cornball platitudes about justice and government to an intern, a.k.a. “the audience”); William Sadler as General Michael Flynn; Breaking Bad’s Jonathan Banks as Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. There’s a dizzying assault of characters and national security-rocking incidents, but it all hums with the energy of a well-oiled political drama.
But it’s when Donald Trump arrives that the series’ tension ratchets up — and the jaw-clenching, tooth-grinding anxiety sets in. Played with a growly, lion-like intensity by the great Brendan Gleeson, Trump is a man that undoes Comey’s belief in codes and norms, makes him squirm. Daniels is finest in their moments together, projecting Comey’s deep discomfort with a stiff lip and a constipated expression. Where Comey is all enlightenment philosophy and intellect, Trump is an animal. Gleeson captures his rabidness, never more so than in a press conference monologue that zooms in close on his face. The twitching brows and the darting eyes, the snarling lips, the breathy delivery, the rambling self-flattery and nonsensical asides — it’s all there.
We don’t need to tell you how Comey and Trump’s “relationship” sours, or how this story ends. It’s as gut-wrenching fictionalized as it was in real life. What’s perhaps more painful is being reminded that a smart, honorable man who only “wanted to stop the bad guys” opened the floodgates to them by believing that he was the moral compass of the FBI and even the U.S. government at large — that, upon seeing a deep, dark problem bubbling up in our democracy, he alone could fix it.