The Comey Rule, Showtime’s adaptation of former FBI director James Comey’s book about the 2016 election and its aftermath, opens with a clip from Stephen Colbert on the CBS Late Show. “I just don’t know what to think about James Comey,” Colbert tells his audience. “First he seemed like he’s the good guy, then he seemed like the bad guy, then he’s a guy who sacrificed himself to save other people … oh my god, is James Comey Severus Snape??”
This clip is, in poker parlance, a tell. If you’re wondering what it will be like to sit through a two-night, three-hour docudrama based on the biggest political story of our day, wonder no further, because it will be handled just like any show hosted by Showtime’s late-night corporate cousin. (Recall that Colbert’s Late Show didn’t find its footing until Stephen planted his in Donald Trump’s backside.) The Comey Rule is a fictionalized TV movie with some news footage dropped in for realism, a continuous blurring of the line between actual events and re-creations, all the while wearing a smirk on its face.
As I slogged through it, here’s what I was wondering: Is The Comey Rule just a bad movie, or is the docudrama format well and truly over? I don’t mean “over” in the sense that no self-respecting network will ever again hire a screenwriter to turn headlines into lightly fictionalized movies — someone still has to make murder sexy, after all. But we are now living in an age when a pandemic is weirder than Pandemic, when a reality-show president constructs an alternate reality that millions of his followers play along with (literally, QAnon is a game), when an appeal to The Manchurian Candidate seems too overwrought for a figure as banal and predictable as Trump, it seems we have reached Peak Reality, and Hollywood’s imagination simply can’t keep up.
Which brings us to Jeff Daniels as Jim Comey. Daniels is a consummate nice-guy actor and he has docudrama’d with the best of them. He played Ed Murrow’s boss in the 2005 McCarthy era movie Good Night And Good Luck (for those under the age of fifty, the McCarthy era was when saying something nice about Russia got you fired and/or blacklisted). More recently, he played John O’Neill, the man who knew what Osama bin Laden was up to, in the adaptation of Lawrence Wright’s 9/11 book The Looming Tower. (I still prefer Frontline’s moody, factual version, “The Man Who Knew.”)
In the opening scene of The Comey Rule, we see Comey waking up on the day he’s to go in to interview with President Obama for the FBI job. He assures his wife Patrice (Jennifer Ehle) that Obama will pick someone else. Then he opens his closet full of suit jackets and shirts, barely differentiated by shades of shades of color, to decide which combo to wear. Then into the kitchen, where the teenage daughters are eating breakfast and have a bet about which wardrobe combo Dad was going to wear.
And my reaction is — are we being serious here? Not serious? I feel like TV shows and movies never used to have the tonal problems that they do now. The Comey Rule is telling a deadly serious tale, one would think, yet it often adds a light, un-self-consciously ironic touch to one of the most disruptive events in the history of free elections.
Night one dutifully checks all the boxes in Comey’s ascent to FBI director and his getting mired in the Hillary Clinton email scandal, which greases the skids for Trump’s surprise election. Night two ushers Donald Trump onto the stage, where he tests Comey’s loyalty over dinner and, not finding it, ultimately has him fired, setting off one in a seemingly endless ring of fires that have blazed out of control inside D.C. ever since.
Billy Ray (The Last Tycoon), who wrote and directed this adaptation, brings in source material to fill out Comey’s story, and, this being a docudrama, takes a few liberties. There is a brief re-enactment of the infamous Trump Tower meeting where Russians and Trump associates discussed… something. Ray also works heroically to shoehorn in every major figure from Comey’s book, even if it requires popping some nametags on screen to explain to non-political junkies that Holly Hunter is actually Sally Yates, Michael Kelly is Andrew McCabe, Michael Hyatt is Obama’s attorney general Loretta Lynch, etc. (Brendan Gleeson’s Trump impersonation definitely passes the Colbert test — serious, yet not.)
I like Ray’s decision to use Rod Rosenstein as the movie’s quasi-narrator. Rosenstein, played colorlessly by Scoot McNairy, is low-key, of medium height, cynical rather than self-righteous … basically everything Comey’s not. In a scene set in the present day, Rosenstein tells an associate at his D.C. law firm that every Fourth of July, Comey and his family sit around and read the Declaration of Independence to each other. That’s not in Comey’s book, Rosenstein sardonically notes. “He just found a way to make sure that everyone knows.” In case it’s not obvious he adds, “Jim was always a showboat.” I can’t imagine Comey is pleased with his depiction in The Comey Rule, but I’m sure he happily cashed the check for the film rights anyway.
The problem with The Comey Rule, and docudramas today in general, is that the dramatic imperative — showing Chekhov’s gun before firing it — gets in the way of the documentary imperative, where you kinda hafta let the facts fall where they may. Did the FBI know in advance, as The Comey Rule implies, that AG Lynch was “overly friendly with the Clinton campaign,” or does this just make a good line in the script, since Lynch did indeed reach out to the Clinton team about the email investigation?
A bigger problem with The Comey Rule is that it tells a complex historical event from the point of view of one person. That’s what the movies do, and it’s often the wrong person’s POV (Glory is the best example of this, although the list is long). As I say, Ray tries his best to pull in other voices, but the word Comey is in the title and the reality is that this story is much bigger than him. It’s about the Russians meddling in our elections, then watching with glee while we tear each other’s throats out.
Fortunately (or not), that larger and more troubling story is the subject of another two-night film event. If you have HBO Max you can spend four hours watching that instead — or if you trigger easily, you can just read my review of Alex Gibney’s documentary film Agents of Chaos.
The Comey Rule premieres on Showtime September 27th at 9:00 PM ET.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.