“The Comey Rule” employs a clunky framing device, turning Rod Rosenstein into the awkward narrator of the story. Brilliant casting from top to bottom, however, elevates this two-part Showtime adaptation of former FBI director James Comey’s book, which adopts a sympathetic stance toward the no-win scenario the bureau faced with its twin investigations into presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
The centerpiece, of course, resides in the dramatized glimpses of private conversations between Comey (Jeff Daniels, capturing Comey’s “boy scout” demeanor, if not matching his stature) and Trump (Brendan Gleeson), who manages to incorporate the president’s verbal tics and mannerisms and still create a portrayal that goes beyond parody.
Those controversial exchanges, however, wait for night two, as the opening chapter deals with what Comey calls the “500-year flood” of the FBI having to investigate both Clinton and Trump, with an aide presciently telling him, “You know you’re screwed, right? I do not see a positive outcome here no matter what we find.”
Comey remains a polarizing figure – having engendered hostility from the left and right – which didn’t prevent his book, “A Higher Loyalty,” from selling like hotcakes. The miniseries goes the extra mile to make clear that the bureau harbored few illusions about its options. “I have looked at this from every angle,” Comey concedes to associates. “They’re all terrible.”
Writer-director Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass”) has offered a faithful account of Comey’s book, with the main point of departure being the use of Rosenstein (Scoot McNairy) – the then-Deputy Attorney General – as the somewhat peculiar window into the narrative through his out-loud musings to an aide. It feels like an attempt to provide another voice to make the miniseries less Comey-centric, but proves too cute for its own good.
“Jim was always a showboat,” Rosenstein says, before the story plunges into how Comey’s belief in honesty and doing the right thing faced a rude awakening amid these unprecedented circumstances.
Daniels is especially good in displaying Comey’s quiet discomfort over Trump’s attempts to woo him – to secure his “loyalty” – with small gestures, which Ray highlights with surreal slow-motion around those interactions.
“Just the two of us?” Comey says with a grimace when he realizes he’s dining alone with the president, frantically scribbling notes to memorialize the conversation once he leaves.
“The Comey Rule” (which Showtime originally scheduled after the election, advancing the date at the urging of those involved in making it) certainly paints a damning portrait of Trump, but it’s nothing that those who have read the book or reporting about its contents haven’t heard.
The miniseries is thus defined in part by how remarkably well the cast lines up with the real-life figures, and worth watching if only for that. The supporting players include Holly Hunter as Sally Yates (who could carry her own miniseries), Michael Kelly (“House of Cards”) as Andrew McCabe, Jonathan Banks as James Clapper, and Steven Pasquale and Oona Chaplin as Peter Strzok and Lisa Page.
It’s hardly a surprise that Comey would fare well in this dramatization of history (it is, after all, his book), though the miniseries reinforces the sense that he was perhaps naive despite warnings from those around him and pleas from his wife (Jennifer Ehle), who uses a colorful term to describe his expression when Trump publicly called him over to shake hands.
Like everything else about the Trump presidency, “The Comey Rule” seems unlikely to change any hearts or minds. There’s nevertheless something useful about seeing the dry pages of nonfiction brought to life, in a production that’s hardy flawless but whose stellar casting represents showboating in the best TV sense of the term.
“The Comey Rule” will air Sept. 27-28 at 9 p.m. on Showtime.