For many Americans — me included — the 2016 election still feels like an open wound. I have since felt an intermittent, sick curiosity about what the devastating ascendance of the Trump administration would look like filtered through every premium cable network’s sacred duty to make a too-close-to-the-event TV movie about the news, multiplied by the acquisition of politicians’ self-serving memoirs then filtered through screenwriters who were only half paying attention at the time.
Well, now I know, having watched Billy Ray’s two-night, three-hour extravaganza, which has been released by Showtime under the name “The Comey Rule,” possibly because “But Her Emails: The Movie” seemed insufficiently momentous. It’s styled as a political thriller about the tragic hero, former FBI Director James Comey, based on his memoir "A Higher Loyalty," and is Shakespearean in tone and Wagnerian in length — airing over two hour-and-a-half-ish segments Sunday and Monday.
Here's the problem: Ray has tried to craft a film about a great man’s downfall, but there are no great men in this tale. Lacking any, he had to grant both Comey and President Donald Trump the grand stature neither deserved but is necessary to the project, to make the movie's hero and his nemesis seem important and not silly. He’s betrayed from the outset by his source material: What makes a tragedy a tragedy is that the protagonist, though flawed, suffers more than he should. Comey has not suffered more than he should; he lost a job after a series of totally avoidable bad acts that cost the rest of us dearly, and then Showtime acquired his corny tell-all and hired Jeff Daniels to play him.
Ray is a good writer: His 2007 screenplay about a corrupt FBI agent, “Breach,” demonstrated an uncommon gift for structure and character. It is also the work of a man who takes official Washington, D.C., its denizens and their self-regard far too seriously; that is just not something anybody can or should do without being laughed at these days.
To be fair, any reporter would have serious quibbles with a dramatic adaptation of a big story on his beat, but Comey, the real-life FBI director, has to be radically altered to become the character Daniels plays in this goofy hagiography. Daniels’ Comey is stoic, understated and impossibly dry; his only crime is a selfless devotion to the virtues represented by his agency and the Constitution and embodied in himself.
This is in stark contrast to the actual James Comey who, as deputy attorney general (alongside his predecessor at the FBI, Robert Mueller), oversaw the unprecedented expansion of federal authority under first the Bush administration and then yet further under the Obama administration. That Trump has as much legal authority as he does — which liberals, Comey and the film all seem to bemoan — can be credibly laid at Comey’s feet because of his work at the Department of Justice even before he personally tossed Trump that October surprise about Hillary Clinton's emails that probably won him the presidency.
Ray’s film has Comey self-assuredly walking the halls of the Hoover Building and the streets of D.C., softly issuing orders and keeping his own council as events unfold before him. We are told the FBI is "having trouble" with Apple; in truth, the FBI tried to compel Apple to break its own encryption, a horrific scenario for public data security. The movie then tells us that Comey's FBI is fighting terrorism; in many cases, it did so with elaborate theatrical traps that drew condemnation from human rights organizations. Comey is then packed off to visit the child exploitation force — which actually distributed countless images of child abuse as part of a sting operation during his tenure.
All of this is in service of Ray's hero-creation and Comey's own self-aggrandizement. An actual movie about the Comey-Trump dynamic could have complicated Comey in service of the plot itself.
After all, at every turn, the real-life Comey tried to abridge the rights accorded to people charged with evil, inhuman offenses. When it did so successfully, the bureau was left with case law that gave it ever-greater discretion to abridge everyone else’s rights whenever it saw fit — which is the point, according to our own Constitution, of granting strong rights to the worst among us from the outset. Now that authority developed by Comey belongs to Christopher Wray, a Trump flunky who is investigating ginned-up allegations of misconduct into Comey’s own investigation of Michael Flynn. Comey is the architect of his own misfortune — but also of quite a few other people’s.
That’s not how the man sees himself, though, so that’s not how “The Comey Rule” sees him. “If I make mistakes, I know they’ll be honest ones,” Daniels replies. What a guy.
On the other hand, I’m not sure Brendan Gleeson, who plays Donald Trump, is any good in this thing, but he, at least, is fascinating to watch. Every actor playing Trump has to fall back on imitating his grotesque mannerisms rather than trying to plumb the depths of his inner life (because he doesn’t appear to have one); Gleeson doesn’t look or bother to look much like Trump, but he does have the aggrieved rambling down pat. For about an hour after he trudges into the frame, “The Comey Rule” is both impossible to watch and impossible to look away from.
That's because, at that point in the action, you have James Comey, Jeff Sessions, Andrew McCabe, Rod Rosenstein and any number of other career politicos trying to engage in the delicate and subtle manipulations of warring chess masters, and then there’s Trump — unacknowledged and dominant as a fart — sitting hunched over in the middle of the room, mumbling about ratings and whores. It’s a performance to make the flesh crawl, and Ray gets us every lip-smack and sniff.
As Gleeson’s Trump yammers aimlessly, “The Comey Rule” offers a glimpse of what it might have been — which is to say, it could have reached less for Shakespeare and more for Harold Pinter, with an appropriate lack of respect for people who bit and scratched their way to the pinnacles of power. But Ray isn’t Pinter and "The Comey Rule" isn't a tragedy. It's just kind of pitiful, and its pity is wasted on the wrong people.