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Showtime's The Comey Rule makes an unsparing point, with Brendon Gleeson's top-notch Trump impression

  • "Strictly as an impression, his performance is mixed," James Poniewozik says of Gleeson's Trump in Showtime's two-night miniseries from Billy Ray. "Gleeson, who is Irish, slips occasionally on the accent. But his rendering of Trump’s wandering diction is the best I’ve seen outside a lip-sync. Half his performance is in his bearing, chin jutted forward like the prow of a swollen yacht. More important, Gleeson has a thorough idea of his character. His Trump is not the orange-haired clown prince of SNL and late-night talk shows. He’s a crass, heavy-breathing mobster (Comey’s comparison, and Gleeson makes the likeness vivid) driven by spite and vanity. A heavy-handed musical score portends menace whenever he turns up." The Comey Rule, says Poniewozik, also shows how catastrophically inadequate James Comey was for his role as FBI director during the 2016 election. "He becomes a stand-in for an entire class of Trump-era elites who believe that respect for norms will save them," says Poniewozik. "(The president 'can’t fire me,' Comey tells an associate. 'It’d look horrible.') As for Donald Trump, he’s not precisely the villain, in the show’s view. As The Comey Rule depicts him, he’s a creature, an appetite. He is what he is. He doesn’t know how to be otherwise. Comey, on the other hand, is, if not a villain, then a tragic, hubristic dupe, precisely because he believes he knows better, and because he should. The Comey Rule is not good drama; it’s clunky, self-serious and melodramatic. But it makes an unsparing point amid our own election season. It says that anyone, like its subject, who complacently assumed in 2015 and 2016 that everyone would be fine, who thought that propriety and rules could constrain forces that care about neither, who worried more about appearances than consequences, was a fool. Then it leaves you to sit with the question: What does that make anyone who still believes that today?"

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    • Billy Ray pinpoints what it is about Trump that so enrages many of us: "By telling this story through (James) Comey’s perspective, he gives us a surrogate to channel our disgust and disbelief," says Tim Grierson. "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."
    • The Comey Rule's dialogue is like an info dump: "The show's problems start with the script, written by Billy Ray, who also directs," says Liam Mathews. "There's so much information that needs to be conveyed in every scene that there's no room for any flavor in the dialogue, and characters speak in oppressive blocks of text. You'll feel like you're drowning in acronyms and procedural rules. It adds up to a 'this happened, then this happened, then this happened' style of storytelling that doesn't find any new insight into why anything happened or make any artistic interpretation of what it means that this happened. It has no sense of irony or cynicism. It's hamstrung by a journalistic approach that keeps it from having any real emotional understanding. The lack of emotional understanding and necessity of info-dumping also means there are no characters besides Comey and Trump (Brendan Gleeson). Every character is a real person you know from the news — here's Holly Hunter as Sally Yates, here's Joe Lo Truglio as Jeff Sessions, here's obviously thirtysomething Kingsley Ben-Adir as Barack Obama, bathed in beatific golden light — but none of them are presented as real people, only as points of view. FBI attorney Trisha Anderson (Amy Seimitz), for example, only exists to defend Hillary Clinton in FBI meetings. Comey's wife Patrice (Jennifer Ehle) only exists to defend Hillary Clinton at home and tell Comey he's a good man who needs to remember that."
    • UItimately, Billy Ray takes James Comey at his word: "It isn't just that most of the best, juiciest moments and details in The Comey Rule come directly from Comey's 2018 book A Higher Loyalty — from beat-by-beat recollections of an ill-fated Trump-Comey dinner to little grace notes like Comey refusing to cut in line at the FBI cafeteria — but rather how completely Ray accepts the notion of Comey as a man without ulterior motive," says Daniel Fienberg. "That's not the same as being an apologist for the man. Putting a dozen trained intelligence operatives in a room for counsel and then ignoring them time after time doesn't become the right thing to do just because you do it for what you think are the right reasons. There's an interpretation of Comey as power-hungry or attention-starved that Ray eschews to show a man of decency and patriotism who's so committed to his own moral certitude that he can destroy precedent, screw up an entire election and still feel confident about the decision. Daniels plays this righteousness and decorum to the hilt. He and Ray make no effort to simulate Comey's towering physicality or emulate his speech patterns, instead building a performance around the different ways he responds to different people with different codes — from Trump to his own Hillary-supporting wife, Patrice (elevated beyond thin writing by Jennifer Ehle)."
    • Despite all of the authentic and real-life political fireworks, The Comey Rule still comes off as flat -- and boring: "It’s as if the cast and narrative could not compete with the larger-than-life absurdity of the actual people and events they’re depicting," says Lorraine Ali. "Take the role of Comey himself. The real man is an enigma — he’s stiff, steeped in FBI protocol, yet personable, even charming, in an awkward sort of way. Daniels doesn’t capture that nuance, though he does convincingly portray how conflicted Comey felt between protecting the American people, protecting the bureau and serving the president. Trump (played by Brendan Gleeson) is another tricky figure. The president is shamelessly full of bluster, not to mention unabashedly ill-informed — and then, of course, there’s the hair. Gleeson is a fine actor, but it’s almost impossible to portray Trump on screen without it looking like part of a Saturday Night Live skit...These caricatures might distract from the story, but The Comey Rule, written and directed by Billy Ray, is still worth watching. It does an impressive job of teasing out the tangle of influences that changed the face of American politics four years ago this autumn. It also shows the total unpreparedness of Washington, with all its traditions and protocols, for dealing with the rule-breaking, norm-upending Trump."
    • The Comey Rule presents itself as an unbiased look at Comey's actions from Comey's biased perspective: "It disguises itself as a balanced look at the events surrounding Comey’s investigation into the Hillary Clinton email scandal, its possible role in the 2016 election of Donald Trump, and the subsequent fallout and eventual dismissal of Comey from his position, when it’s anything but," says Alex McLevy. "This story is directly taken from Comey’s memoir, A Higher Loyalty, which obviously presents the narrative with maximum sympathy toward poor James Comey. By the end of this two-part limited series, you half-expect the former public official to climb up on a cross and nail himself to it, smiling beatifically all the while. There’s nothing wrong with that perspective as the basis for a work of historical fiction—every story needs a point of view, after all, and Comey had a hell of a front-row seat to one of the biggest clusterfucks in American political history. But by creating a framing device that supposedly looks back on the events with a dispassionate eye, only to pull the rug out from under the viewer by revealing Rosenstein (Scott McNairy) to be an unreliable narrator and just as craven as every other member of Trump’s coterie of sycophants, any suggestion that the film raises about Comey being anything but a true-blue American hero is thrown in the garbage."
    • The realism of The Comey Rule is unbearable: "Comey himself is a good example of this uncanny valley between believable fiction and unbelievable nonfiction," says David Klion. "Daniels plays him as a mild-mannered boy scout, a beloved and empathetic boss and team player with a perfect home and a perfect family, a sort of aw-shucks American everyman whose one tragic flaw is that he’s convinced if he just maintains his own personal integrity, nothing bad can result. This makes him enormously irritating to the savvier political operatives he clashes with, who understand, as most of us do in retrospect, that honest intentions can still have disastrous consequences. Comey, in other words, makes a lot of sense as a fictional protagonist, and if someone made him up we would nod along at a familiar archetype. Unfortunately, he’s real and has consciously styled himself this way (it sells a lot of books and paid speeches), and we all have to live with his mistakes."
    • The Comey Rule is ill-timed: "It’s a project nobody asked for, dropped into a highly contentious election season, as if the very lessons it hopes to impart somehow do not apply to its own sense of self-importance," says Hank Stuever, adding: "The story’s unsettled nature is proof enough that all of this still needs time to ferment before anyone tries to make it into captivating material for TV and film. Other than being able to say it got there first, The Comey Rule could certainly have waited — until after the election, or until some other era down the road."
    • Ultimately, and rather uninterestingly, The Comey Rule becomes hagiographic and enamored with Comey’s self-made myth of duty and loyalty above all: "Yes, it seems like James Comey, for better or worse, is a man of high, if blind, integrity," says Rodrigo Perez. "But no amount of grandiloquent grandstanding and melancholic bugle-horn patriotism while Comey stares off into the distance contemplating his decisions—and perhaps his self-satisfied belief he did the right thing in the name of country— can convince you the last act hasn’t just bent the knee in devotion to its subject and thus, not all that special any longer. And it’s disappointing, especially given how things begin. So, James Comey, good guy? Bill Ray says two resounding thumbs up with nationalistic trumpet blares in the background for good measure."
    • The Comey Rule is funnier than ought to be: "The Comey Rule is not supposed to be funny," says Judy Berman. "The real events it dramatizes, which span James Comey’s fraught tenure as FBI Director, are certainly no joke. And yet, at times, the two-part Showtime series had me laughing so uncontrollably I had to press pause." Berman says the miniseries is funny because it's told from Comey's perspective: "This isn’t just a problem for Comey’s cartoon villains; every character speaks in the voice of the Mueller report and embodies exactly one personality trait in this morality play starring everyman Jim Comey (played by a muted Jeff Daniels). Sally Yates (a lively but underutilized Holly Hunter) stands for integrity. Rod Rosenstein (Scoot McNairy from Halt and Catch Fire) is a cautionary tale of professional jealousy. In trying to demystify complex events—events that influenced Donald Trump’s election and impeachment—writer Billy Ray errs toward oversimplification."
    • The Comey Rule portrays Trump as actually being scary: "Over the past four years, when Donald Trump has been portrayed in pop culture, he’s usually a comedic figure: the blustery Alec Baldwin on Saturday Night Live, the confused moron in Sarah Cooper’s TikTok videos, or an actual cartoon on Our Cartoon President," says Jen Chaney. "With Brendan Gleeson in the role, the Donald Trump of The Comey Rule comes across as crude and narcissistic, but also imposing and intimidating. Gleeson, wearing tangerine-tinted makeup and a perpetual scowl, channels the president’s body language and the cadence of his voice, right down to his frequent loud inhalations and sniffles. He becomes the man without ever slipping into caricature. Here, Trump is actually scary, particularly in a scene where he looms over Rosenstein in the Oval Office and insists that the letter explaining Comey’s dismissal must say that Comey told Trump he was not being investigated with regard to Russia. Gleeson is shot from a low angle as he gives his order, making Trump look massive and monstrous. Rosenstein, as we know, complies, and while his complicity is completely unjustified, one can at least viscerally grasp why he felt bullied into phrasing the letter as he did."
    • Brendan Gleeson’s Trump isn't all that impressive: "A note to the faction of viewers tuning in for Brendan Gleeson’s take on Trump, the first substantive dramatized portrayal of the sitting commander-in-chief from the realm of prestige TV. He only shows up on night two, and when he does, it’s easy to forget that he’s supposed to be the draw," says Charles Bramesco. "It’s a fine impression and middling performance, better in its particulars than in its essence. Visually, he’s a dead ringer in profile, but looks unnatural in head-on shots. The hair’s wrong, missing the comb-over’s wispy structural complexities. And though Gleeson’s got the tone of voice down pat, he can’t master the cadence, that aimless lilt that saunters from one half-formed thought to the next. That might be the writing, which feeds faux-Trump lines more coherent than the free-form word-jazz that spills out of his mouth with a semi-cognizant viscosity. His Trump behaves like a common jerk rather than a nihilistic force of spiteful chaos, which is to say that he’s recognizably human. Ultimately, it all comes back to the same surplus of good faith coloring the depiction of Comey."
    • Finally, a decent Trump impression: "Trump impressions have become so widespread, we’ve become resigned to mediocrity to the extent that we even gave Alec Baldwin an Emmy Award for his wildly bad take on Saturday Night Live," says Kevin Fallon. "But sketch comedy is one thing. Broadness is forgivable. What about in the context of real, legitimate acting?...In The Comey Rule, Gleeson’s Trump looms silently in the shadows—a Jaws shark, a Big Bad—more conspicuous and menacing in his absence before becoming a consequential figure in the second half of the series’ action. It’s then that he’s finally unveiled as a comic-book villain, a horror-movie monster, which is more a matter of tone and direction than Gleeson’s performance. Still, his is one of the most naturalistic—and therefore most believable—Trump takes we’ve seen yet."
    • The Comey Rule feels less like entertainment and more like ideological torture porn: "The chief conflict in Comey Rule comes down to one question: Was James Comey a true patriot forced into increasingly impossible situations, or an egomaniac with an 'I alone can fix it' attitude who helped get Donald Trump elected?" says Kristen Baldwin. "That question remains largely unanswered, even as the miniseries transitions into the Trump administration era in part 2. James Comey, both in reality and as portrayed by Daniels, is an extremely self-possessed man. It's a quality that likely served him well as head of the FBI, but it's not as helpful for the protagonist of a dramatic series. Even in his most devastating moments of professional turmoil — when, for example, President Trump (Brendan Gleeson) summons Comey to a private dinner and growls, 'I expect loyalty' — Daniels-as-Comey remains an impassive wall of inscrutability. There are external signals of distress, of course: the slow camera push-in, the minor chords quivering quietly on the soundtrack. All these things tell us that something bad is happening, but we knew that already."
    • What's fact and what's fiction in The Comey Rule
    • Jeff Daniels hopes The Comey Rule educates viewers about how destructive Trump can be: "We were in a different time, when Trump was just a celebrity that was going to cut people’s taxes and ‘It’ll be okay because there will be 10 people around him who won’t let him do something stupid, crazy or dangerous.’ Well, those 10 people are gone now,” says Daniels, who barely interacted with James Comey. “We need to be a hell of a lot more informed than we were then. Maybe this will help.”
    • When Daniels was first approached, he requested to be surrounded by good actors: He recalled asking, “Can you get me great actors? Will the studio, will the network pay for great actors around me because I bounce off them, I use them, half my performance is based on the other actors.”
    • Daniels says Comey became nauseous watching filming: “That was the day I met him, two months into shooting," says Daniels. "He came around the corner and said, ‘Well, you brought it all back. The emotions, the uncomfortableness, the inappropriateness of what I was being confronted with, how I was going to respond. My mind was whirring. I feel a bit nauseous, to be honest."
    • Billy Ray sees himself as being in a unique position: “I don’t think any writer, director had been given the opportunity that I have right now, to tell a story as it is unfolding,” Ray admitted of the timing of The Comey Rule as Trump and Joe Biden are going into the final stretch of this year’s election. “To be a part of a national conversation right before a national election. That brings with it enormous responsibility, and enormous obligation, but as long as we’re being truthful in our storytelling, I feel that we’re a match for that."
    • Ray insists The Comey Rule is not a love letter to James Comey, but he was taken aback by Comey's love of This Is Us: "He surprised me on a lot of levels," says Ray. "First of all, I learned while doing my research that he watched This Is Us every week. And cries. That was a shocker. That floored me, and of course that couldn’t fit in the movie. Secondly, this guy had two years of opportunities in which to try to manipulate me or spin me or steer me into painting a more flattering portrait of him, and he never took that opportunity. Not once. And he read lots of drafts. Never once did I get a note that said gee, you kind of make me look like a dick here. Can you help a little bit? Not once. And think about some of the things that are said about Comey in this series. I really try not to read reviews. I don’t think it’s healthy for a writer/director to do that. But I know there are some reviews that have said that this is a love letter to Comey. That is such a fundamental misreading of what this series is that it’s kind of breathtaking. And it’s really really lazy criticism, because the fact is look at what people say about Comey in this series. We take a lot of shots at that guy, and Comey himself never complained about it. I always felt like we were being very, very truthful. This is not an apology for Comey, this series. This is an examination of decisions that were made in 2016 and 2017 that have changed the world."
    • Ray on how he thinks President Trump will react: "I have no idea how he'll react but I imagine we'll be on his radar and I think it's likely that the IRS will start auditing my taxes," he said, adding: "I think at the very least I'm in for a mean nickname on Twitter."

    TOPICS: The Comey Rule, Showtime, Billy Ray, Brendan Gleeson, James Comey, Jeff Daniels, Trump Presidency




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