Jeff Daniels Brings Everything But Justice to Showtime’s ‘The Comey Rule’

If you had vague trust issues with the presidency of Donald Trump before now watching “The Comey Rule” will confirm them. Of course, if you think everything on mainstream media is a conspiracy against the president, Showtime’s two-part miniseries will further convince you of that. But not because it’s trying. It wants to do the opposite. The entire miniseries is about mining that division by pitting facts against false news. To make the point incontrovertible, former “Newsroom” star Jeff Daniels not only plays James Comey, but plays him as a man who tells President Obama (Kingsley Ben-Adir) to his face how he isn’t a fan of his administration. This he does during a job interview for the head FBI position, which he wants very badly. Talk about speaking truth to power. This forthrightness gets him the job, reinforcing both his and Obama’s status as reasonable men. Sadly, there are some men you just can’t reason with. 

Donald J. Trump may be president because of selective prosecutorial disclosure, although the miniseries’ James Comey tries to deftly steer the outcome in a different direction. Daniels plays this close to the vest, until he betrays his anguish to the only people whose opinions Comey truly cares about, his wife and daughters. This is a tortured soul, further tormented by the objective distance he has to bring to his job, the job of a lifetime, director of the FBI. Each of the actors brings the essence of their characters’ inner dilemma to their performances. They rise to the challenge of portraying living historical figures who are etched in the mass consciousness. We know the players from the 24-hour news cycle, late night cannon fodder and opening skits on “Saturday Night Live.” There are no parodies in the performance, even though some of the real players are walking caricatures.

Donald Trump doesn’t show up for a while. We hear pundits and players talking about him on cable news footage. We are teased with the tease of the hair on the back of his head as he gropes his way through a Miss America rotisserie. He is both Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s novel “Heart of Darkness,” and the darkness itself. Brendan Gleeson, indeed, gives Trump the heft Marlon Brando brought to Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation, “Apocalypse Now,” along with the emotional weight Rod Steiger brought to “Capone.” But the true heart of the darkness is Putin in the Showtime release. While Gleeson does his best to bring something more than satire to the role, he is hobbled by the dialogue, which was written by the words of his character in real life, edited for clarity.

The miniseries showcases Daniels’ generosity as an actor. The best lines go to the people around him. Some, not designed, but succeed in provoking out loud guffaws. One in particular could come straight out of “Goodfellas.” After being chided for a particularly inappropriate presidential dinner for two, Comey painfully pleads “what do you want me to do, arrest the president?” allowing Steve Zissis  as FBI General Counsel James Baker the joy of seriously suggesting “you’ve had worse ideas.” Daniels stands there and takes it. It’s the judicious thing to do.  He also lets Jonathan Banks’ James Clapper deliver the bad news to the president about the upcoming probe.

“Crossfire Hurricane,” the FBI-designated code name for their investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election, starts as an in-joke, but nobody’s laughing when stand up comedians start riffing on it. The plot is arresting, which is more than you can say for the agents who try and unravel it. That goes for the Attorney General’s office as well. Loretta Lynch (Michael Hyatt), the first African-American woman to be confirmed as U.S. Attorney General, has no choice but to leave the future up to chance. Sally Yates (Holly Hunter) can only hope the buildings will still be standing after the Russian moonshot lands Trump in the Oval office.

“The president has a real eye for interior design,” the Stepford cabinet repeats, and repeats. Trump himself says it about himself, and encourages Comey to say it. If you say it enough times, it must be true. Even a casual viewer may be distracted by how many times General Mike Flynn licks his fingers during a scene where he’s being questioned. He must be trying to lick his lies into truth. There is an establishing shot of half of a glazed chocolate donut sitting on a plate, and by the end of the scene you realize the FBI agent sitting across from him hasn’t touched the one sitting in front of him, and may never eat a donut again. And that was his favorite flavor. 

Trump, who knows opulence, has his breakfast treat glazed with golden showers. It is served to him as a friendly warning rather than a subpoena, by the Bureau. This can’t be said for the controversial case of the “Midyear Exam,” the federally-issued code name for the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails while serving as Secretary of State. This is where it all goes wrong. Comey’s decisions, however legally mandated they may have seemed on the surface at the time, were biased, prejudicial and a time bomb which detonates with clocklike precision. “The Comey Rule” accepts its titular protagonist at his word. The two-part series is based on Comey’s memoir “A Higher Loyalty.” He is truly the man who made all this possible. He is reminded of it several times over the course of the creature double feature, but the closing credits presents only the dignified denouement of a man who didn’t protect his country.

James Comey himself is on record applauding the accuracy of the miniseries, and also expressing appreciation for Jonathan Mann’s song “Fuck You, James Comey.” “The Comey Rule” is eminently watchable, but also an important documentation of a difficult and fractious time in history. Its very arc serves as a fair warning in the upcoming election. “The Comey Rule” is as suspenseful as a political thriller can get, but the extreme closeups of Trump’s face during routine news appearances push it into the horror genre. The makeup is remarkably real and yet more nightmarish than Freddy Krueger. I hope it doesn’t become a franchise.

The Comey Rule” airs Sept. 27 and Sept. 28 at 9 p.m. on Showtime.