In mainstream American TV and film, fictional depictions of the White House have long been compensatory fantasies. In The West Wing (1999-2006), President Bartlet was a witty, erudite, over-educated and agonised liberal, a quintessential anti-Bush. When Obama was in his second term, House of Cards (2013-18) offered a cynical interpretation of the fading possibilities of the rousing ‘Yes We Can’ slogan, before grim realities outpaced the fiction. When Trump confounded the expectations of the majority of the liberal media, Designated Survivor (2016-19) was rushed into production to premiere in 2016, Kiefer Sutherland playing the unwilling, unexpected boffin thrust into the presidency by an alt-right terrorist attack that wipes out most of the Washington elite. Meanwhile, Madame Secretary (2014-19) in later seasons gave us a fantasy Hillary presidency.
Billy Ray’s The Comey Rule, commissioned by ViacomCBS, appeared in September 2020 as America teetered on the edge of another crucial election. It is not meant to be fantasy, being based on the memoir of James Comey, the FBI director between 2013-17, who was vilified by Democrats for upending the last days of Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016, and then notoriously fired by Donald Trump in May 2017 for refusing an oath of loyalty and failing to suppress the inquiry into Russian interference in the election. Comey, a lifelong Republican but appointed by Obama, now speaks ardently in favour of Joe Biden.
Ray’s two-part, four-hour adaptation (made in co-operation with Comey) focuses first on the FBI’s agonies over the Clinton email investigation in the summer of 2016, part one ending with the surprise election of Trump. The second part is dominated by the FBI’s alarm at Trump’s intricate connections with Russia and his attempt to inveigle Comey into a personal relationship that effectively demands the obstruction of justice.
The series includes a host of stars playing real-life figures, including Jeff Daniels as James Comey, Holly Hunter as the deputy attorney general, and Brendan Gleeson as a fully embodied, glinting and menacing Trump. Gleeson’s performance is tremendous, and it is hard to see how Anthony Hopkins, long in the running for the role, could have done better.
Many actors signed on for a punishing production schedule (a 51-day shoot) in order to get the series out before the November 2020 election. It was all clearly intended as a salutary warning. But when Showtime initially rescheduled it for a January 2021 release, there was an outcry and suspicions that the ViacomCBS boss, Shari Redstone, a fervent ally of Trump, had quashed its pre-election showing.
This wrapped a conspiracy around a conspiracy: a typical hall-of-mirrors experience in America’s partisan, post-truth world. Billy Ray’s letter of apology to the cast leaked at once and became a media event in itself. In the end, whatever the factors in play, the series was shown in America five weeks before the election.
The Comey Rule works hard to be an argument in favour of those enduring institutions of American democracy that still rise above partisanship. Comey, the squeaky clean, earnest Christian, public servant and devoted father, demonised by both political parties at different moments in this story, comes to bear the weight of this ideal of apolitical service.
We often get shots of Washington’s famous edifices against swelling music, and the series ends with a lowly assistant – significantly, one of the few African-American characters, Justin Patel (Dalmar Abuzeid) – repeating portentous lines to remember that the enduring rule of law resides in these buildings if they are respected.
With the capture of the Department of Justice by Trump loyalists and the Supreme Court shifting rightwards over the course of Trump’s presidency, this appeal also feels worryingly like a compensatory fantasy. It seems very noble yet utterly out of sync with America’s poisoned public discourse.
The Comey Rule participates in that other genre that we might call the Washington procedural: earnest movies that try to dramatise the back-room bureaucratic processes that drive democratic accountability. These films also provide a measure of compensation – showing that there are decent folk still invested in a selfless devotion to public service. Last year, we had Scott Burns’s The Report (2019), about the relentless pedantic investigations of the lowly Senate staffer Daniel Jones into the sanction of torture by the CIA after 9/11. Spielberg pointedly returned to the Watergate scandal in The Post in 2017, looking at the quiet heroism of the fourth estate against the crushing political might of Nixon’s White House. Then we had Mark Ruffalo’s portrayal of the dogged lawyer Robert Bilott, pursuing the DuPont corporation for compensation in Todd Haynes’s chilly and melancholy film Dark Waters (2019). Here, any victory looks almost too costly to count as a win.
The Comey Rule is full of the tropes of the Washington procedural: meeting rooms where acronyms are thrown about in whiplash dialogue, overhead shots of bleak plazas overwhelming our heroes, travelling shots with breathless exposition spouted as we move along the corridors of power.
Jennifer Ehle does well in the supporting role of Comey’s wife, another deadly trope (at least we see her at work, and on the women’s march against Trump, and energising the resistance of her daughters). Other actors appear who now seem indelibly linked with Washington dramas: Michael Kelly, who here plays the deputy director of the FBI Andrew McCabe, has surely been in every single one of these Washington dramas. He does give good bureaucrat.
Even so, conspiracy fans may be disappointed that there is not a single meeting in an underground car park; but that is because this story is so continuously extraordinary that it needs no help from melodrama. Some details may escape those who are not Washington political junkies, but many of these moments will rush back to you with the appropriate level of horror.
I wasn’t too distracted by measuring actors against their actual counterparts, because many of the principal figures are faceless bureaucrats in the FBI. Jeff Daniels as Comey is a cipher of public good, and doesn’t try too hard to impersonate. Gleeson’s Trump is more physical, as it must be, but he plays him as a calculating and wounded menace, not a clown.
There is a fantastic dinner scene, the crucial moment when Trump requests Comey’s loyalty, while complaining that the White House fish knives are better than the ones at Mar-a-Lago. Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Barack Obama is curiously downbeat, perhaps retrospectively carrying the weight of all that was lost. We never see Hillary, except in the news clips woven into the fiction.
The film strives to reassert the ideals of the apolitical institutions of the state, although anyone with a grasp of the longer history of the FBI may find this a little difficult to swallow. Although clearly sympathetic to Comey’s narrative of these events, Billy Ray’s script does try to round this out by framing it with the exasperated commentary of the man who brought him down: Rod Rosenstein, played by Scoot McNairy.
Rosenstein, the lawyer forced to write the legal assessment of Comey’s shortcomings, is annoyed by the easy charm of his rival, his ‘showboating’, always reading his actions as basely egotistical. In the end, though, Rosenstein is also bitten off, chewed and spat out by Trump’s political machine. It is a neat arc.
Will the institutions endure? It might need more than rousing music and long shots of Washington’s monuments at this late stage of the American empire.
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