Let’s be honest about something.
The main reason – and for some, it may well be the only reason – to watch The Comey Rule is to see Brendan Gleeson’s performance as Donald Trump, the first time anyone has played the 45th US president in a straight drama rather than a comedy sketch.
The gratification, if you can call it that, was delayed in last night’s first part which, oddly, went out as two hour-long episodes here, but was broadcast as a single two-hour slab in America at the weekend.
Gleeson/Trump appeared, fleetingly and shown from behind, only in the dying seconds, pushing his way through a stage curtain in slow motion to what sounded very much like the peal of a funeral bell.
Up to that point, he’d been a bit like the shark in the first hour of Jaws: you can’t see him, but you know he’s out there somewhere. You can sense his doomy presence circling the waters, ready to make his move.
This was the tiniest of tasters. If you want to experience the full triple cheeseburger, you’ll have to wait until next Wednesday. The question is, how many viewers will still have the appetite?
I’d already had my doubts about the value of The Comey Rule, which stars Jeff Daniels as the former FBI director James Comey. From the start, writer-director Billy Ray’s two-part mini-series was billed as event television. It’s based on Comey’s own book, A Higher Loyalty, the details of which were already well-ventilated not least by Comey himself in a string of media appearances.
Sure, the prospect of seeing one of the finest actors of his generation playing the worst US president in history was tremendously exciting. Trump, like Nixon, is an actor’s gift.
But a lot has happened since it was first announced. For one thing, Covid-19, which has claimed more than a million lives around the globe, one-fifth of them in America on Trump’s watch.
For another, the mess that was Tuesday night’s live presidential debate, which offered the terrifying sight of the President of the United States not only refusing to condemn white supremacist groups, but urging a gang of armed racist thugs, nicknamed the Proud Boys, to go to war against their fellow Americans – and particularly
their Black fellow Americans.
How does a drama, and one that replays events and developments, with which anyone who has even a passing interest in American politics will be familiar, compete with this?
Even ignoring this latest dangerous turn of events, the first part makes for mostly leaden viewing.
It guides us, often stiffly and pedantically, through the prelude to Trump’s election: the FBI’s 2015-16 investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server, and its rather more low-key probing of Russian intelligence’s interference in the election.
As anyone who was following the story at the time will already know, it concluded Clinton had done nothing illegal — which angered those on the right.
What angered those on the left even more was when Comey reopened the investigation, 12 days before the election, in relation to another batch of emails. Again, no wrongdoing was found, but it did untold damage – as Comey realised it would – to the Clinton campaign.
Comey’s public utterances, made in defiance of dire warnings from his staff, were calamitous and had the opposite effect of what he intended: to show that the FBI was above politics and free of bias – something that absolutely nobody believes anyway.
The Comey Rule delivers all this in the clunkiest manner
There are huge dumps of
expository dialogue and identifying captions every time a well-known figure appears.
Daniels is supremely well-cast, catching Comey’s starchy righteousness and tendency to showboat. But the script’s attempts to paint Comey as a tragic fallen hero is a hard pill to swallow, especially after Tuesday. As an exercise in self-justification, it fails miserably. Bring on Gleeson.