MCN Commentary & Analysis

Review: The Comey Rule (spoiler-free)

Now and again, after a lot of digging – and we are doing more digging than ever – you find a simple, perfect gem. Such is The Comey Rule.

We have been down this road before. And not without some real aesthetic value. There is an entire series of films by Oliver Stone, but the most similar in immediacy was W., a film of mixed strengths and weaknesses. Just last year we had the dueling looks at Roger Ailes and Fox News with Bombshell and The Loudest Voice. We have gone to various forms of reality with Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, the best being The People v. OJ Simpson, though that took 20 years of simmering before it came together in such a thoughtful, complex way. Bernie Madoff has been dramatized multiple times. Jack Kevorkian. Steve Jobs has 2 films in the can already.

What draws you in so profoundly in The Comey Rule is that Billy Ray, who wrote and directed based on Comey’s autobiography, never asks the audience to go far from the indisputable. Like who you like. Hate who you hate. You can argue all day long about whether you believe the motivations that are presented fro each character in this limited series… or really, whether the various individuals believe the motivations that are offered or are liars. But you can’t fairly walk away from this show claiming that Billy Ray is “taking Comey’s side” or “going easy on Hillary” or whatever posture you take into the viewing.

If you have convinced yourself that the FBI and everyone working for Obama before Trump arrived were openly conspiring against Trump from the beginning because they hated Trump, yeah… you will be disappointed. You are also somewhat delusional. But that movie won’t get made for a few years yet.

Unlike Stone’s W., no one is really doing an imitation in The Comey Rule. Brandon Gleeson, obviously, has a lot of make-up in playing Trump. But his performance will be the most subtle take on Trump you will ever see. And really, it’s rather sympathetic. He isn’t the lunatic currently on display, barnstorming the contested states spewing insane accusations and self-indulgent lies. This is early Presdient Trump, arriving in Washington with his ideas of how the world should work and feeling his way through.

The theoretical lead of the story, Comey, played by Jeff Daniels is a variation on Daniels, not remotely a detailed approximation of Comey. For starters, Daniels is a lanky 6′ 3″… but Comey is 6′ 8″ and usually has the awkward physicality which that height offers. I was looking forward to the scene of Comey trying to hide in the curtains of the Oval. I have no idea whether Billy Ray considered it, but I could understand that it wouldn’t have felt the same without a gawkily tall guy.

All the players you have probably read about are there. And there is that moment when you are amused by the casting of somewhat familiar actors in most roles. But they take their place in an ensemble that lives the story, not as dramatically as an Aaron Sorkin might have made it or masked in mystery like Oliver Stone, and all become as banal and frustrating as any workplace drama.

The portraits of power ebbing and flowing, whether a very subtle Holly Hunter as Sally Yates or Michael Kelly as a hard-edged and driven Andrew McCabe or Scoot McNairy as a more-political (non-party)-than-he-suggests Rod Rosenstein. Strzok and Page (Steven Pasquale and Oona Chaplin) each has a very strong personality, fallibility, and a sex life that gets in the way. And Amy Seimetz is the glue in the FBI office, playing Trisha Anderson, who is the arbiter of legal truth for both the office and the audience.

It makes sense… but it is also clearly a dramatic choice that Billy Ray doesn’t introduce Trump until the very end of the ninety-five-minute long first episode of the twi-parter.

Gleeson’s turn here is like a subtle, perfect custard. An endless treat. But you need that first 1:35 to prepare yourself for this new, game-changing character. Also, the first half is really about Comey and the Hillary Clinton (who is not dramatized) e-mail drama. So it is hardly inconsequential. It is what establishes the baseline, high and low, for the next 2 hours.

The secret sauce for The Comey Rule is Comey’s home life, where his wife is played by the always-great Jennifer Ehle. Her role reminded me greatly of Patricia Clarkson in The Untouchables. Not quite as ethereal. And in this case, a strong voice with a strong sense of the history into which her husband is wading.

There is something oddly comforting and deeply shocking about reliving the time that The Comey Rule covers. Four years later, it feels almost quaint, as so many strings coming from those early days have gone in so many previously incomprehensible directions.

Billy Ray is the superstar here. Jeff Daniels as Comey is in a rather thankless role, though he does as well as I can imagine with it. Brendan Gleeson should be a prohibitive favorite for Emmy next year (or maybe thinking of anything Trump will be too much for voters). Chaplin, Seimetz, Kelly, and McNairy all get enough screen time and big enough challenges to be remembered for years to come, while other great actors doing wonderful work just aren’t in showy enough roles to have much more than the pleasure of having been part of this.

An epic of restraint. Can’t wait to watch it again.

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