Many of us like our fiction to be realistic, with plausible scenarios and nuanced, recognizably human protagonists—and meanwhile we like our nonfiction to be outlandish, full of absurd plot twists and larger than life characters. It’s not so much that we want fiction and nonfiction to converge in one place as that we want them to trade places, like ships passing in the night, each bound for the other’s point of origin.
This paradox was on my mind throughout the nearly four hours of Showtime’s two-part miniseries The Comey Rule, adapted from former FBI Director James Comey’s bestselling 2018 memoir, which bears the more annoying title A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership. To the best of my understanding, The Comey Rule is an accurate retelling of some well-documented and undeniably important historical events that took place between 2015 and 2017. It has a first-rate cast—including Jeff Daniels as Comey, Holly Hunter as Sally Yates, Michael Kelly as Andrew McCabe, Jonathan Banks as James Clapper, and a standout Brendon Gleeson as Donald Trump—and is written and directed by Billy Ray, who is responsible for such artful adaptations of real events as Captain Phillips and the wonderful Shattered Glass (which recounts a scandal at this very magazine). And yet the events it depicts, all of which actually happened, nonetheless strain credulity, and watching them reproduced feels exhausting—more so than in other films based on recent events. The question I kept asking myself was whether that was Ray’s fault or mine, and whether there’s any way to dramatize the story of Donald Trump’s election and its aftermath that doesn’t feel demeaning to everyone involved.
The first episode begins with Comey’s interview for the FBI director job with President Barack Obama (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and ends with Trump’s surprise win in November 2016, just days after Comey chose to reopen the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, which may well have swung the election outcome. I found myself groaning through much of this, but it was difficult to parse how much of my discomfort was with the film itself, as opposed to the excruciating calamity of the 2016 election. I’m no fan of Clinton or her campaign—I supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary before dutifully voting for Clinton in the general—but that doesn’t make it any more enjoyable to be reminded how much national energy was expended on her emails. We already lived through these events in real time, and many of us spent the next year or two litigating them and might prefer never to think about them again. If you never totally understood why Comey made the decisions he did regarding the email investigation, The Comey Rule does a solid job of laying out his thought process, but all the viewer can really do with that information is scream “You idiot!” again and again at their laptop.
Comey himself is a good example of this uncanny valley between believable fiction and unbelievable nonfiction. Daniels plays him as a mild-mannered boy scout, a beloved and empathetic boss and team player with a perfect home and a perfect family, a sort of aw-shucks American everyman whose one tragic flaw is that he’s convinced if he just maintains his own personal integrity, nothing bad can result. This makes him enormously irritating to the savvier political operatives he clashes with, who understand, as most of us do in retrospect, that honest intentions can still have disastrous consequences. Comey, in other words, makes a lot of sense as a fictional protagonist, and if someone made him up we would nod along at a familiar archetype. Unfortunately, he’s real and has consciously styled himself this way (it sells a lot of books and paid speeches), and we all have to live with his mistakes.
The second episode covers Comey’s tenure under Trump prior to his infamous firing and subsequent testimony before Congress, and is much better, carried largely by the strength of Gleeson’s performance as Trump. Again, the line between fiction and reality is an initial hurdle; Gleeson’s hair and makeup look ridiculous, but they’re supposed to. His voice and his line delivery and his frequent audible sniffs are absurd, but no more than the actual Trump’s are. We may not wish to live in a world where this cartoon villain is the president, but we do, and by agreeing to sit through The Comey Rule we have also implicitly agreed to give Gleeson a chance to do something with this unbearable character that hasn’t been done before.
What Gleeson and Ray understand about the president that, for instance, Alec Baldwin does not, is that Trump is at least as much a menace as he is a clown. Gleeson’s Trump is deeply unsettling to watch and to be in the same room with, something most of us have not personally experienced. This is The Comey Rule’s most powerful takeaway: We’ve all watched Trump on TV and read his tweets, and in either context, it can be very funny when he complains about cable news ratings or the size of his inauguration crowds. But imagine having to enter the Oval Office in January 2017 and shake his hand, to look him in the eye, to be polite and professional while he drones on about those topics. Most likely, you wouldn’t laugh; instead, you’d feel physically unclean and psychically violated.
In hindsight, the first episode tees us up well for the second. The Comey Rule starts off as what I’ve termed a Beltway procedural, that familiar West Wing–inspired genre in which very smart political operatives bicker over the wordings of legal documents and press releases. Some of these people can’t stand one another—Rod Rosenstein (Scoot McNairy), who serves as the series’s unlikely narrator, plays Aaron Burr to Comey’s Alexander Hamilton, a sniveling careerist who finds his stubbornly principled counterpart insufferable. But they’re all loyal to the same institutional norms that have long prevailed in Washington and that The Comey Rule unapologetically celebrates in its cringiest scenes.
If you’re a skeptic of those institutional norms—if, like me, you’re the kind of leftist who finds it difficult to root for the FBI—then this is exactly as much of a drag as you’d expect. But once Trump and his cronies enter the White House, the story becomes a lot more compelling. Critics of the pre-Trump Washington status quo may enjoy the idea of all these hacks and feds being humiliated and abused by Trump’s regime. What if Comey and his ilk got what they deserved, even if it came at a horrific cost to the American public and the rest of the world? But it’s harder to maintain that conceit when watching The Comey Rule’s most memorable scenes, the ones depicting first-person interactions between the Trump White House and the career civil servants at the FBI and the Department of Justice. Even if you’ve read all the news coverage of, for instance, Comey’s one-on-one dinner with Trump, or Yates’s meetings with the White House counsel, what the actors and Ray’s screenplay offer is the visceral experience of attempting to maintain one’s dignity while taking orders from predators and cretins.
While those scenes make for great drama, they don’t solve the central problem with The Comey Rule, and with the strain of MSNBC liberalism it panders to: that the professional dignity and institutional norms of Washington bureaucrats are the main stakes. At one point, we are treated to a cloying lecture by Yates (directed at a fictional African American aide, played by Dalmar Abuzeid, whose role in the script is to accept everything she says at face value) about how the government buildings lining Pennsylvania Avenue represent some sort of eternal civic ideal, one that we are assured will outlast Trump’s tawdry reign. That the pre-Trump FBI headquarters or U.S. Capitol or White House might represent something more sinister, at least to some people, is never entertained.
As far as I can tell from watching this series, the FBI exists to catch rapists and murderers, to prevent mass shootings and terror attacks, to carefully investigate corruption without any partisan agenda, and to protect our political system against Russian interference. It certainly does not exist to tap civil rights leaders’ phones, to blacklist and arrest left-wing dissidents, or to bait troubled Muslim teenagers with counterterrorism sting operations. When Comey meets with Obama early on to discuss running the FBI, he acknowledges that he voted for John McCain and Mitt Romney and that he is to the president’s right on criminal justice reform, but says reasonable people can disagree about policy concerns—an earnest bipartisan appeal that Obama eagerly accepts on behalf of the presumed audience. But watching The Comey Rule after months of mass protests against racist policing, it’s frustrating to see the real human consequences of tough-on-crime policies go unacknowledged.
Besides that Trump makes public servants like Comey feel uncomfortable, the series’ main brief against the current president seems to be that having an alleged sexual predator triumph over the would-be first woman president is traumatizing for millions of women and girls, an anxiety expressed by Comey’s wife, Patrice (Jennifer Ehle), and their four daughters. This is valid, and certainly worth acknowledging, but it’s also another example of how Ray’s script understands politics primarily as a contest of symbolism and signifiers, rather than as an arena for material concerns. It would not have been hard to shoehorn in a few references to those concerns: to Trump’s unconstitutional Muslim travel ban (which none other than Sally Yates refused to enforce), or his white nationalist ties, or his assault on reproductive rights, or his gleeful despoliation of the atmosphere—or, in a last-minute closing title card at least, how more than 200,000 Americans have died of Covid-19 on his watch. But none of that made it into The Comey Rule. Instead we’re left with this: Trump is vulgar, incompetent, predatory, criminal, likely mentally unwell, and a beneficiary of Russian election interference—which, we’re reminded in a parting note, remains a live concern in 2020.
All of this is true, but none of it sufficiently captures the real costs that Comey’s naïveté and self-righteousness at a key moment inflicted on all of us four years ago. Those buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue will surely endure the Trump era, and so will Comey’s speaking fees, but far too many innocent lives have not and will not.