Review: ‘The Comey Rule’ should be staggering. But its drama pales next to the 2020 election

Jeff Daniels as former FBI Director James Comey in Showtime's "The Comey Rule."
(Ben Mark Holzberg / CBS Television Studios / Showtime)

Showtime’s two-part drama “The Comey Rule” follows former FBI director James Comey (Jeff Daniels) through the chaos and disruption of the 2016 election and the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency.

I know, an inside-the-Beltway miniseries is just what you want to see while you’re hunkered down at home waiting out the pandemic with 40 days (and counting) until the election. There is good reason, however, to revisit the Steele dossier, Hillary Clinton, Pizzagate, Russian kompromat, pee tape era. By deconstructing the past, the miniseries shows what could and may go wrong heading to the polls on Nov. 3.

But the star of this drama, which premieres Sunday, isn’t Daniels, or Comey. It’s the staggering chain of events.

The bombshells arrive so fast and furious that one can’t help but feel sympathy for Comey, even though he was deemed “The Most Hated Man in America” after potentially swaying the election in Trump’s favor. Breaking with FBI election-year protocol, Comey publicly announced that the bureau was reopening an investigation into Clinton‘s endlessly discussed emails just days before voters went to the polls in 2016. He did not mention the bureau’s examination of Russia’s dangerous ties to Trump and his campaign.

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Despite all of the authentic, real-life political fireworks they had to work with in this production, which is based on Comey’s bestseller “A Higher Loyalty,” “The Comey Rule” still comes off flat — and even boring — in places. It’s as if the cast and narrative could not compete with the larger-than-life absurdity of the actual people and events they’re depicting.


Take the role of Comey himself. The real man is an enigma — he’s stiff, steeped in FBI protocol, yet personable, even charming, in an awkward sort of way. Daniels doesn’t capture that nuance, though he does convincingly portray how conflicted Comey felt between protecting the American people, protecting the bureau and serving the president.

Brendan Gleeson as President Donald Trump in "The Comey Rule."
(Ben Mark Holzberg / CBS Television Studios / Showtime)

Trump (played by Brendan Gleeson) is another tricky figure. The president is shamelessly full of bluster, not to mention unabashedly ill-informed — and then, of course, there’s the hair. Gleeson is a fine actor, but it’s almost impossible to portray Trump on screen without it looking like part of a “Saturday Night Live” skit: “Mine was the biggest inauguration, ever!” Gleeson does an admirable job, but it’s hard to upstage POTUS in the spectacle department.

These caricatures might distract from the story, but “The Comey Rule,” written and directed by Billy Ray, is still worth watching. It does an impressive job of teasing out the tangle of influences that changed the face of American politics four years ago this autumn. It also shows the total unpreparedness of Washington, with all its traditions and protocols, for dealing with the rule-breaking, norm-upending Trump.

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Part 1 of the miniseries looks at two FBI investigations central to the narrative of the 2016 election: Russia’s state-sponsored cyber attacks to disrupt and influence the American election in Trump’s favor, and in turn Trump’s ties to Russia; and the scandal around Hilary Clinton’s use of her personal email server when she was secretary of State under President Obama.

Part 2, which airs Monday, explores Comey’s relationship with the president, which becomes way too close for comfort, as well as the mafia-like culture of the Trump administration. The story comes to a close when Comey is unceremoniously dismissed by Trump in May 2017.

In addition to the two key figures, the miniseries features a who’s who of figures making headlines during that fraught period, including Comey’s second in command, Andrew McCabe (Michael Kelly), Comey’s boss, Deputy Atty. Gen. Sally Yates (Holly Hunter), the slippery Michael Flynn (William Sadler), former Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions (Joe Lo Truglio), Comey’s FBI predecessor and later special counsel Robert Mueller (Peter Coyote); and Trump advisor Stephen Miller (Nicolas Van Burek).

“The Comey Rule” is a cautionary tale about what happens when we put all of our faith in the System, and it fails — or perhaps it’s about what happens when we lose all faith in the system after it fails us. There’s a lesson in here somewhere, if only we were far enough along to see the answers.

‘The Comey Rule’

Where: Showtime
When: 9 p.m. Sunday and Monday