Are things so dire in 2020 that we need to revisit the fraught 2016 presidential election? The Comey Rule, a two-part miniseries on Showtime, is here to remind us just what a gigantic cluster the days leading up to that election truly were, in case we happen to forget. The miniseries focuses in particular on the role the former FBI director James Comey (Jeff Daniels) played in the investigations into Hillary Clinton’s emails and public declarations that many people believe essentially put the thumb on the scales and cost Clinton the election.
Based on Comey’s memoir, The Comey Rule picks up in the halcyon days of 2013 as Comey is chosen for the job of FBI director. Despite being a Republican, Comey and then-president Barack Obama (Kingsley Ben-Adir) agree on upholding the tradition of keeping the FBI and the executive branch as far from each other as possible. As the 2016 election looms, Comey is tested with the prospect of investigating Democrats nominee Hillary Clinton’s private email server and upholding the FBI’s appearance of impartiality. This is further complicated when on the other end of the spectrum, Donald Trump (Brendan Gleeson) and his campaign staff may have ties to Russians interfering with the election. Comey and his team are caught in the middle as the nation watches.
The subject matter of The Comey Rule feels all-too-relevant and yet a thousand years (or news cycles) ago at the same time. It’s somewhat quaint to watch Jeff Daniels’ Comey and second-in-command Andrew McCabe (Michael Kelly) launch a top-to-bottom investigation into Clinton’s usage of a private email server as the gravest possible matter while the Russia investigation is all but ignored. It’s so important still it seems that The Comey Rule devotes much of its first part to retracing all of the steps in the email investigation to an almost agonizing degree.
Every twist and turn in the investigation is dramatized for maximum effect and every player in the legal drama is given screentime, with name and rank displayed onscreen for those who aren’t political junkies. It’s pretty clear this is where The Comey Rule should have been pared down to be something along the lines of a two-hour movie giving the broad strokes of the email investigation rather than a blow-by-blow. With so many people involved no one outside of Jeff Daniels gets any real screentime to shine.
The investigation turns up nothing, and then it is explosively reopened again only to once again turn up nothing. It is a nothing burger, as one would say in the parlance of the time. Comey makes the decision to announce the findings, but in so many words condemns Clinton, much to the chagrin of attorney general Sally Yates (Holly Hunter). Elsewhere, news of the Russia ties falls on deaf ears and Trump takes the election.
It’s during the second part of the miniseries that you could argue truly begins the story, as Comey is now working alongside the Trump administration and the horror begins to dawn on him that Trump doesn’t care in the least about the FBI’s sense of jurisprudence and not-so-subtley asks Comey to make the Russia investigation go away. The miniseries keeps Gleeson’s Trump out of sight until part two, and it’s a difficult performance to gauge since the real-life Trump is already so cartoonish that for any semblance of realism, the mannerism have to be dialed back enough to be believable.
Gleeson holds back on the faux charm displayed on TV and punches up the mob boss similarities and wounded ego. Daniels’ Comey stands helpless, a thin smile his only shield from Trump’s never-ending diatribes on the unfairness of the Russia investigation. Watching Daniels’ Comey start to be broken down by Trump seems to be the only time the miniseries comes alive as it shows a real, human soul being slowly crushed instead of the infallible do-gooder he’s been for the majority of the runtime. It’s at this point Comey’s failed attempt to disappear into a curtain and the infamous dinner scene are reenacted, culminating in Trump going full-on Vito Corleone and asking for his loyalty.
The Comey Rule‘s biggest problem is that it is completely uninterested in dissecting James Comey’s actions leading up to the night of the election or in scrutinizing him. if you want reenactments of the carnival sideshow that the American political scene has become, here you go, but if you wanted to dig deeper you’d come away from The Comey Rule disappointed. Why, despite being in a room with people who have opinions counter to Comeys does he insist that there are no other options? Why is the prospect of Clinton’s emails so worrisome while the Russia ties are mere afterthoughts? Was he really so naive that, on some broader level, he did not realize his actions in one way or another constituted playing politics? All of those questions remain unasked.
As a character study, James Comey is a cardboard cutout not so different from the overactive conman in the adversarial role. There are no real doubts to be wrestled with, only perhaps the exasperation you can see in his hang dog expression as he faces the firing squad of his Clinton-supporting wife and daughters. “Is James Comey a good man and did he do the right thing?” are questions only important to James Comey.
The former is irrelevant and if damage has been done to the democracy that enabled an entity like the FBI to be impartial in the first place then the answer is a resounding no. The Comey Rule is let down by its subject’s inability for self-reflection and has nothing to say about the sad state of the 2016 election that hasn’t been endlessly rehashed already, though perhaps it gave us arguably the best and most complex Trump to date (which truly isn’t saying much). It does serve as a warning, however. Not just of letting an amoral demagogue reach the highest office in the land, but also of putting the perception of one’s institution and rigid protocol above all else.