Written and Directed by Billy Ray
Cast: Jeff Daniels, Brendan Gleeson, Holly Hunter, Jennifer Ehle, Scoot McNairy, Amy Seimetz, Steven Pasquale, Brian D’arcy Smith, Michael Kelly, Oona Chaplin
It’s amazing how much of the zeitgeist the current political climate has become that not only is it fuelling so much of the conversations that we are now having, but that film and television aren’t even waiting years or even decades to pass before trying to produce dramas about the election of Donald Trump, the Brexit referendum results or any of the surrounding narratives around them.
Like a Saturday Night Live sketch, Hollywood has seemingly thrown itself into a ring whereby we’re now getting to see famous faces dressing up as figures we’re more prone to see in the nightly news, but where SNL goes for the joke, things like The Comey Rule or the recent feature film Bombshell aims for the drama, albeit in a witty fashion, attempting to hit home with political and social truths while also having fun in seeing A-list stars playing dress up as (in)famous figures from politics and the media.
The Comey Rule comes to our television screens centred around Jeff Daniels’ portrayal of the former FBI director, but which has been scoring a lot of publicity for the casting of Brendan Gleeson as Trump, whose shadowed profile in early promotional images were uncanny when compared to the real thing.
There is a danger in watching an expensive looking production like this that it might come off as one of those aforementioned SNL sketches but without the laughs (although in truth SNL has been relying on Baldwin’s portrayal so much that the joke is starting to wear thin). With the cast populated by the aforementioned Daniels and Gleeson, as well as Jennifer Ehle, Amy Seimetz, Oona Chaplin, Steven Pasquale, Brian D’arcy Smith, Michael Kelly and Kingsley Ben-Adir, and the whole thing written and directed by Billy Ray, it’s clear that ‘prestige television’ is what it’s aiming for, and for the most part it works, especially for these first two hours.
The spectre of Trump himself haunts the first half of The Comey Rule more than anything. We’re given a tease of Gleeson’s portrayal through his leery behaviour at what appears to be a Miss World competition where we only see him from the back of the head (although Gleeson appears to have larger than appropriate hands for the role), with a large part of the focus placed on Comey and the work of the FBI during the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s e-mails and the potential involvement of Russian hackers into the election.
Everything is very much filtered through Jeff Daniels’ performance and it’s that performance that carries so much of everything here. One of the most likeable performers on screen and stage, Daniels steps into the role of someone pretty much seen as a pariah of 2016, but who is portrayed here as a character so devoted to the notion of right against wrong and a moral sense of justice that he isn’t afraid of pursuing any investigation even if the timing is damaging and the fallout could hurt him.
The possibility of satire itself is ripe for such a character. He is such a straight arrow he isn’t afraid to even admit to President Obama that he voted for McCain and Romney, and one of the most genuinely funniest moments of the episode is when he asks to be explained what a ‘golden shower’ when the possibility of Russian blackmail of Trump is brought into the conversation.
The threat that such a portrayal could fall into the realm of straight-laced humourless FBI agent the likes of which are spoofed on The Simpsons or referred to by Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black is a real danger here, but Daniels acts the hell out of it and it’s his portrayal of someone who is so infallible morally that he dares to make decisions that literally put him between a rock and a hard place that makes the first two hours of The Comey Rule work as dramatically well as they do.
We get Scoot McNairy doing his version of Rod Rosen, William Sadler as Michael Flynn, and Kingsley Ben-Adir as Obama, and there’s always fun to be had in watching Hollywood stars playing dress up in the name of political drama (more so when it’s devoted to being as serious as this is), but it works the best when presenting Comey having to face criticism from those around him, including his wife. Jennifer Ehle could be stuck with a thankless role, but she elevates it with well delivered arguments about what it could mean for their daughters and their future if Trump is elected. Such arguments have a potent power to them given that we know where these first two hours are going to end up and that quiet unspoken moment between the two of them that closes the episode is quietly devastating.
The question going into its second half is if the drama can work as well now that Trump will play a larger part, or if like the actual Trump in real life, he could end up ruining it all.
The Comey Rule is available to stream on Showtime in the U.S and on Sky Box Sets and Now TV in the U.K.