It begins, as these things often do, with a late-night talk-show monologue. Jay Leno did them so often that there’s a two-minute supercut of characters watching him talk about what’s happening in the movie. Here it’s Stephen Colbert in a 2017 monologue, likening James Comey, the former FBI director, to the Harry Potter character Severus Snape. “First, he seems like a good guy. Then, he seems like a bad guy. Then it seems like he sacrificed himself to save other people.” He adds, “Are we going to find out he loved us all along?”
This is how contemporary political docudramas tend to work, and it’s a reason why many of them are so terrible. You see the same formula at work in theatrical movies like The American President or W., or cable movies like Recount or Game Change, or in miniseries like the recent Showtime seven-parter about Roger Ailes, The Loudest Voice: Big stars and recognizable character actors lining up to do imitations of political actors, clips from late-night monologues or pundit-stocked cable programs to dump exposition or register conventional wisdom, and a general tick-tock of events that are wholly familiar to the cognoscenti and mostly familiar to everyone else.
In its worst moments, The Comey Rule does little to distinguish itself from the dreary slush pile of other docudramas based on true events or books — in this case, Comey’s 2018 memoir A Higher Loyalty. And yet the series’s seasoned writer-director, Billy Ray, has a journalistic style that adds more shading to real-life characters than expected. Ray’s directorial debut, 2003’s Shattered Glass, drew extraordinary tension and suspense from the relationship between the disgraced New Republic fabulist Stephen Glass and his editor, Charles Lane, and his recent script for Richard Jewell framed the downfall of the wrongly accused 1996 Olympic bomber as a story of crushing disillusionment. It’s not enough merely to dramatize the news like a Saturday Night Live sketch without jokes, but to have some kind of take on it.
In that, The Comey Rule is intermittently successful. There’s an idea in journalism circles that when both sides are angry about a piece, the reporter must be doing something right. That sort of bothsides-ism is mostly nonsense — telling the truth is more important than political triangulation — but Ray is determined to thread the needle on Comey, a man who came to be hated by Democrats and Republicans alike. Without minimizing the narcissism that underscores Comey’s above-it-all righteousness, Ray makes the obvious but important point that the former FBI director’s involvement in the Hillary Clinton email investigation and the Trump-Russia investigation was a lose-lose situation. He was always going to splash gasoline on those fires; it was just a matter of how much.
The first half of The Comey Rule covers the period leading up to Donald Trump getting elected president in 2016. (In fact, Brendan Gleeson’s Trump, who will figure prominently on tomorrow night’s conclusion, doesn’t say a word here.) In an ingenious framing device, the story is told through the jaundiced perspective of Rod Rosenstein, the former U.S. Deputy Attorney General, played here by the always-wonderful Scoot McNairy. This Rosenstein is cast as a savvy political operator, a career public servant who’s good at keeping his head down and avoiding partisan ire. Comey was the tsunami that eventually swept him out to sea, and there was nothing he could do about it.
Then again, there’s not much Comey could have done to alter his fate, either. After accepting the position to succeed Robert Mueller as FBI director — from Kingsley Ben-Adir’s conspicuously young Barack Obama — Comey settles into the job as a cornpone idealist, believing the FBI to be an unsullied institution for justice. Before giving him the job, Obama asks if he’s the type of guy who needs a lot of attention. “It’s not a huge driver for me,” he lies. Attention is something he craves from Day One, with his ostentatious appeals to the rank-and-file, though The Comey Rule argues that he was going to get attention whether he needed it or not. The question is whether putting himself out front was an act of self-sacrifice and personal accountability or merely egotism.
The long fuse on Comey’s tenure at the FBI is lit on June 10, 2015, when Andrew McCabe (Michael Kelly) stops by his office with an Inspector General referral on Hillary Clinton’s emails. The question for the FBI is whether Clinton’s use of a private email server for official business as secretary of State violated federal law. “You know you’re screwed, right?” Comey is warned. “I don’t see a positive outcome here no matter what we find.” Comey doesn’t seem to accept that inevitability, but he does feel like “Operation Midyear Exam,” as the investigation is dubbed, must be “letter-perfect” in determining whether Clinton knowingly broke the law in mishandling classified information or deleting emails relevant to the House inquiry into Benghazi.
The FBI’s determination is that she was guilty of poor judgment, but not of corruption. And it had to make that determination twice: Once when Midyear Exam was done poring through her many devices and again, shortly before the election, when Anthony Weiner’s laptop, seized after he was nabbed allegedly sending sexually explicit texts to a 15-year-old girl, was found to contain emails from Weiner’s wife Huma Abedin, who was serving as vice chair of Clinton’s campaign. In both cases, Comey put himself front and center, and in both cases, he was heavily criticized by Democrats for harming Clinton at the polls. It shouldn’t have been difficult for Clinton to argue that she was more trustworthy than a candidate with a history of shady financial dealings and sexual assault, but Comey’s actions helped create a false equivalency on the issue of corruption. In the aftermath of the election, the Clinton campaign blamed its shocking loss directly on Comey’s reopening of the email investigation.
The Comey Rule credibly represents Comey’s decision-making process, even while suggesting that he consistently chose the wrong path. (In strategy meetings, the FBI attorneys played by Amy Seimetz and Steve Zissis offer the best counsel — and are respectfully overruled.) The infamous tarmac meeting between Obama’s attorney general Loretta Lynch (Michael Hyatt) and Bill Clinton convinces him not to appear alongside her or Sally Yates (Holly Hunter), for fear of their connection to the Clintons. So the first ending of Midyear Exam becomes a minor fiasco, with Comey attempting to sound fair and balanced by chiding Hillary Clinton like a schoolmarm before exonerating her. Worse still is his infamous letter reopening the case after Weiner’s arrest, which violates the agency’s guidance about taking action close to an election.
Casting Jeff Daniels as Comey is a small masterstroke, because Comey is like a more sinister version of the crusading anchor Daniels played in The Newsroom, animated by the same moral certainty, but not as clearly in the right. What’s paramount to this Comey is that he be understood as a man of honor and integrity and that the FBI as an institution enjoy the same reputation, which is not the same thing as showing good judgment. It seems likely that anyone presiding over the Clinton emails and the Trump-Russia investigation could not save the FBI from charges of partisanship. Even Bob Mueller, the very model of the straight-shooter-respected-by-all-sides type, would not emerge from this mess with that image intact.
“Night One” allows Comey’s wife Patrice (Jennifer Ehle) to channel the bulk of the disappointment in him. The Comeys both know the dangers of a Trump presidency, and the message it might send to their four daughters, but Patrice cannot talk him out of putting his thumb on the scale. Comey will pay the price on tomorrow night’s episode, of course, when the Russia investigation starts to pick up steam and Trump inevitably sours on him. The scenes related to that side of Comey’s story are some of the worst in this half — e.g., a first meeting between Michael Flynn and Vladimir Putin that promises a gala hosted via satellite by Julian Assange, with Jill Stein at his table — but Ray’s take on the email investigation is mostly sound, even if the dialogue is too laden with exposition and pundit-speak.
James Comey came out of this mess cleanly. That left his colleagues — and the country — holding the mop.
• The scenes involving “lovers” Peter Strzok (Steven Pasquale) and Lisa Page (Oona Chaplin) are so ludicrous they seem adapted from Trump’s Twitter feed. The mix of political conspiracy and pillow talk is comically on-the-nose and particularly cruel to Page, who’s seen as a woman who’s brazen in her opinions and her sexuality. That happens to be the same problem that plagued Ray’s screenplay for Richard Jewell, which was rightly criticized for tarring Kathy Scruggs, a now-deceased journalist, as a runaway sexpot who slept with sources to get information.
The character of Justin, a young Black man who works in the Department of Justice, appears to exist only to be a soundboard for characters like Rosenstein and Yates. Maybe his role gets more significant in the second half, but for now it’s entirely disposable.
• The scene where Comey refuses to cut the line at the FBI cafeteria establishes his character nicely. He’s the type of guy who wants to project a man-of-the-people image while making certain everyone is aware that he’s projecting a man-of-the-people image. He’s ostentatiously humble.
• McCabe also gets a Trump-Twitter-feed-level assessment, courtesy of former FBI deputy director Mark Giuliano on his way out the door. “This is a lunchpail culture,” he tells McCabe. “Driving a blue Porsche wearing matching blue cufflinks may not be the best message for you to send.”
• Including a scene in the aftermath of the Pulse Nightclub shooting is a way to emphasize that Comey had other matters to tend to as director, but it’s not worth witnessing the carnage for that point.
• “If he’d just been a little humbler, a little less certain that his morality is all that mattered, the world wouldn’t know my name today.” If you’re looking for a thesis, Rosenstein offers one here.