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In ‘The Comey Rule,’ We’re All James Comey, Shocked and Offended by the Strangeness of Donald Trump

This uneven Showtime limited series gets one thing very right: For all of us who were raised to be honorable and decent, the weird, vulgar leader of the free world is an abomination we cannot comprehend

There are plenty of reasons why people detest Donald Trump, but one of the most potent is how offensive he is. Sure, he’s a misogynist and a racist, which are bad enough, but it’s also his demeanor in general that’s deeply grating. He proudly violates social norms — he shakes hands in a weird way — and he talks about himself insistently. He’s an anti-intellectual who shows little empathy for anyone else. He lies all the time. He doesn’t seem to like dogs. He’s got vulgar taste and has the unhealthy diet of a teenager. His very existence is an affront to how people should behave — especially if you’re the president of the United States.

This, of course, is why his supporters love him — he’s not some snooty snowflake elite — but for the rest of us, every day that he’s in the White House is a stab in the eye, a violation of the moral order. He’s an abomination and an insult. He’s a cruel joke being played on us that’s not funny at all.

I never read James Comey’s 2018 book A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership, but from excerpts and reviews, what seems clear is that the former FBI director was appalled by Trump’s behavior, whether it be his presidential manner or his personal interactions. In the memoir, Comey notes that Trump never laughed but, rather, sneered, an indication that the 45th president possessed a “deep insecurity, his inability to be vulnerable or to risk himself by appreciating the humor of others, which, on reflection, is really very sad in a leader, and a little scary in a president.” That might seem like a small, petty detail, but it speaks to a larger societal dismay about Trump. He isn’t like us, and he shouldn’t be the way he is. No one should.

Audiences often get exasperated with liberal Hollywood filmmakers tackling political issues because we can predict exactly the tack that they’ll take. The nuclear smugness of a project like Vice isn’t mitigated by the fact that I agreed with filmmaker Adam McKay’s negative view of Dick Cheney and the Bush administration. If anything, the chummy “we all know these people are awful” tone proved nauseating, congratulating the viewer for being on the right side of history without offering any insight into what, precisely, made that Republican regime so horrendous. McKay was offended by Cheney, but other than making cheap jokes, he couldn’t explain why, assuming that it would be self-evident to anyone who bothered seeing the film.

The Comey Rule isn’t without substantial flaws, but what makes it ultimately work is that writer-director Billy Ray pinpoints what it is about Trump that so enrages many of us. By telling this story through Comey’s perspective, he gives us a surrogate to channel our disgust and disbelief. Along the way, this two-night limited series also morphs into a poignant illustration of the limits of Hollywood productions to take down corrupt politicians. Structured like a cop drama — the kind where the Feds nail the crooks at the end — The Comey Rule is about what happens when the bad guys win and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.

Premiering on Showtime on September 27th, with Part Two airing the following night, the series features the expected stridency, with the events unfolding as if the future of the Republic depends on a television show making its case against Trump. (Ray has indicated that he wanted The Comey Rule to air before the presidential election, writing to his cast and crew, “[W]hile I’ve made movies about my country before, this was the first time I ever made a movie for my country.”) The series uses Comey’s book as its jumping-off point — as well as what the press notes describe as “more than a year of additional interviews with a number of key principals” — to recount the FBI director’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad 2016 and early 2017. There’s a fascinating study of a proud, principled man’s collision course with his polar opposite buried within The Comey Rule, and when Ray locates that thread, the series really crackles. But even when he doesn’t, his story still vibrates with a gnawing horror about the reality star who came to Washington.

Many of the central figures depicted in The Comey Rule are played by actors who, through makeup, hair and vocal imitations, are meant to resemble their real-life counterparts. Inevitably, this leads to some pretty dopey, Saturday Night Live-like dress-up — having Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Joe Lo Truglio do Jeff Sessions is just plain goofy — which is why it’s welcome that Jeff Daniels doesn’t look like Comey at all. But Daniels does embody a core attribute of the FBI director — or, rather, the one Comey seems most concerned about — which is an unfailing commitment to honesty and integrity. Outside of the Dumb and Dumber films, the Emmy-winning veteran always radiates smarts and decency, and there’s more than a little Will McAvoy, his self-righteous anchor character from The Newsroom, in his portrayal of Comey, another guy who thinks he’s righter than the people around him. 

There’s not much need to worry about spoilers with something like The Comey Rule — if you’re unaware of what happened during the 2016 presidential election, I envy your ignorance and urge you to return to your cave immediately — but it’s to Ray’s credit that he manages to recount that dark period with genuine tension. The first part of The Comey Rule focuses on the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails in the months leading up to the November vote, ending with Trump’s upset victory. Part Two chronicles the aftermath, as Trump assumes office and has the now-infamous private dinner with Comey in which, according to Comey, the president demanded his loyalty — a violation of the arm’s-length relationship Comey felt the FBI and a president should maintain. (It wouldn’t be wise to be too cozy with the leader of the free world if you have to one day investigate him or someone close to him — which, of course, is exactly what will soon happen.)

Jeff Daniels as James Comey

Although the advertising has pushed the idea that The Comey Rule is a mano-a-mano battle between Comey and Trump, it’s really more an examination of the FBI director’s controversial decisions in 2016 — first to publicly announce he was closing the Clinton investigation, then reversing himself mere days before the election when new emails came to light — and how he had to live with the consequences of those decisions. Daniels plays Comey as an earnest, slightly stiff dogooder who’s big on institutional norms, an important quality when you’re leading an organization that must appear apolitical in order to do its job effectively. There’s a richer, more complicated story to tell here — about how Comey’s arrogant certainty of his unimpeachable moral judgment helped to harm Clinton and elect Trump — and The Comey Rule only occasionally rubs up against it. For the most part, the series assures us that Comey was a patriot in a bind, a good father and attentive husband, and an all-around honorable fellow. And while that most certainly may be true, the lack of a critical eye undercuts The Comey Rule’s complexity. By insisting that Comey is beyond reproach, the series assures us that we are, too.

Trump really doesn’t enter The Comey Rule until the second night, and unlike Daniels, Brendan Gleeson has very much been made up to resemble his character. By this point, just about every nitwit and late-night host has his own Donald Trump impression — in The Comey Rule, Gleeson’s Trump complains about Alec Baldwin’s — but I think the Irish actor has hit upon something fundamental to the man’s essence. Of course Gleeson does the weird hand gestures and stiff handshakes expertly — he’s even got the vocal mannerisms down cold — but what’s most impressive about the performance is that it doesn’t go for laughs. As Comey suggested in A Higher Loyalty, this Trump is a chronically insecure and needy individual, but his self-absorption is so complete and curdled that there’s no room for lightness. 

In other words, Gleeson plays the president the exact way as I see him, which is that he’s so enraging and bizarre and inhuman in his behavior that I can’t find it funny. And that’s precisely how Daniels’ Comey views him, too. What The Comey Rule does very well is remind us how shockingly strange Trump is — entering his orbit is like walking into a realm of unreality so enveloping that the ordinary rules (of law, of decorum, of decency) no longer apply. Ray’s camera is pointed at Trump not in mockery but in bafflement. How exactly does a man get this way? 

In their early encounters, Comey looks at Trump without always responding to what the president-elect has just said. Daniels gives you the sense that his character doesn’t quite know what to make of Trump. It’s almost as if Comey’s brain is short-circuiting: This cannot be right. This man cannot have just been elected president.

Brendan Gleeson as President Donald J. Trump

But Ray hints at something deeper going on inside Comey. It’s not simply that the FBI director disagrees with the new president’s views on loyalty and propriety — he seems to be personally offended by the man’s oafishness. This only briefly comes up in The Comey Rule, but before he ran the FBI, Comey was a federal prosecutor who went after the Mafia. In his book, Comey notes that he picked up on a disturbing similarity between the mobsters he used to target and the Trump administration: “The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. The loyalty oaths. The us-versus-them worldview. The lying about all things, large and small, in service to some code of loyalty that put the organization above morality and above the truth.” 

Without ever saying it, the Comey of The Comey Rule is aghast that he now works for someone who represents all the qualities that he himself abhors. That anguish is more pronounced because Comey fears he alone was responsible for putting Trump into the White House — maybe if he’d handled Clinton’s emails differently, things wouldn’t have played out this way. But because the Comey we meet in the series is so guided by the importance of doing things the right thing — or, rather, the way Comey thinks they should be done in order to show transparency and fairness — he is cursed to watch his actions put him face-to-face with a man who stands for none of the same principles. Most of us hate Trump because he doesn’t reflect our values, but none of us nearly single-handedly got him elected. The second half of The Comey Rule is Comey’s slow realization that he’s created the nightmare in which we all now reside.

Ray, whose Stephen Glass biopic Shattered Glass was a far defter and thought-provoking examination of personal integrity and constant lying, has a real knack for capturing the politicking and cliquishness of office environments — much of the series involves Comey and his underlings discussing confidential matters in conference rooms and on cellphones — and adroitly building suspense around events whose outcome we already know. But Comey’s disgust at Trump matches Ray’s, who has fashioned a crime thriller in which the FBI will start to put together the clues of a conspiracy — namely, that Trump sought help from Russian aides to influence the 2016 election. In an ordinary Hollywood production, Comey’s team would track down the leads, get the crooks to confess and see that justice had been served. But Hollywood can’t do anything to change this unhappy ending. Like the rest of us, Ray is struggling to make sense of a natural order that’s suddenly out of whack.

Despite its hokey straining for significance and simplistic portrayals of some of its supporting players — I especially felt bad for Kingsley Ben-Adir as a one-note Barack Obama — what gives The Comey Rule its spark is its sense of pained indignation. What I — and, I imagine, a lot of people — despise about Trump is that his presidency feels profoundly unfair. Never mind that he didn’t win the popular vote, or that the Russians interfered in our election — his victory seemed to fly in the face of everything most of us had been taught about how good people should behave. The Comey Rule taps into that feeling of cosmic betrayal. Among the series’ most powerful moments is its most obvious: Sitting on the couch aghast after Trump is declared the winner, one of Comey’s daughters says in utter bewilderment to her sisters and their mother, “He said, ‘Grab ‘em by the pussy.’ Didn’t everyone hear him say, ‘You can grab ‘em by the pussy’?” 

The indignation in her voice, and the sad silence of those around her, has been the perpetual mood for most of us since November 2016: This is not right. What’s affecting about this flawed, uneven but undeniably compelling series is that both Ray and his main character cannot get past the utter wrongness of Trump’s presidency. It’s an insult that never stops hurting. But that’s what keeps The Comey Rule from being too smug: Its makers are still too stunned and despondent by what’s happened. Like the Comey character, the series can’t help but take Trump’s ascendance personally.

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