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Review roundup: Showtime’s ‘The Comey Rule’ presents a false hero and a horror movie villain

Hollywood is inexplicably obsessed with mythologizing the Trump presidency.

Maybe it’s because we knew him as a TV personality long before he was anything else, and because Hollywood loves adapting American history with old-fashioned heroes and villains and a heaping dose of star power. But the difference between making a TV show about Abraham Lincoln and one about Donald Trump — apart from almost everything about those men — is that the latter is still enacting history on a daily basis. 

He’s passing laws, appointing Supreme Court Justices, undermining every American institution he can lay his tiny hands on, and we are not viewing those events with any hindsight or distance, but with a disbelief that is unique to the present moment. Living through history, it turns out, is a lot less fun than watching the TV version of it. Nevertheless, Hollywood persists.

Enter Showtime’s The Comey Rule, a two-part miniseries that is the latest attempt from show business to Say Something about our Political Moment without offering anything new besides a different actor under the Trump wig. In anticipation of the Sunday premiere, check out what critics are saying about The Comey Rule, based on the eponymous former FBI director’s memoir and adapted by Billy Ray.

The sanctification of James Comey

Sam Thielman, NBC News

Ray has tried to craft a film about a great man’s downfall, but there are no great men in this tale. Lacking any, he had to grant both Comey and President Donald Trump the grand stature neither deserved but is necessary to the project, to make the movie’s hero and his nemesis seem important and not silly. He’s betrayed from the outset by his source material: What makes a tragedy a tragedy is that the protagonist, though flawed, suffers more than he should. Comey has not suffered more than he should; he lost a job after a series of totally avoidable bad acts that cost the rest of us dearly, and then Showtime acquired his corny tell-all and hired Jeff Daniels to play him.

James Poniewozik, The New York Times

In his book “A Higher Loyalty,” he appears to see his decisions, which very possibly swung the 2016 election and failed to keep the president from interfering in investigations, as noble if tragic acts of principle. As translated by the director and screenwriter Billy Ray, this is instead a slo-mo horror story, in which the worst lack all inhibition while the best are full of fatuous integrity.

Laura Miller, Slate

Ray doesn’t pay enough attention to the view of many who have known him that moral vanity plays a role in Comey’s character and behavior—beyond having Daniels offer a brief and not very persuasive confession that he can be “self-righteous.” But that doesn’t seem to matter much in the world of the first half of The Comey Rule. Sure, it might make Comey irritating to those he works with (and Rosenstein’s complaints about Comey are later revealed to be petty and envy-driven), but how can too much integrity be a fault in a public servant?

Alex McLevy, The A.V. Club

This is the problem with The Comey Rule: It disguises itself as a balanced look at the events surrounding Comey’s investigation into the Hillary Clinton email scandal, its possible role in the 2016 election of Donald Trump, and the subsequent fallout and eventual dismissal of Comey from his position, when it’s anything but. This story is directly taken from Comey’s memoir, A Higher Loyalty, which obviously presents the narrative with maximum sympathy toward poor James Comey. By the end of this two-part limited series, you half-expect the former public official to climb up on a cross and nail himself to it, smiling beatifically all the while.

Daniel D’Addario, Variety

Daniels’s Comey prides himself on being practically post-human, a creature governed by his supercilious awareness that he is in the right. The movie bends and strains to accommodate Comey’s showy displays of duty and righteousness, such that by the time he meets Trump, Comey has had anything about him that we might grip onto sandblasted away by honor. What might have been a human tragedy about a man whose belief in the purity of institutions led to those same institutions’ coming apart under a tyrant is, instead, largely a fable about a hero.

Another actor adds Trump to his resume

Sam Thielman, NBC News

Gleeson doesn’t look or bother to look much like Trump, but he does have the aggrieved rambling down pat. For about an hour after he trudges into the frame, “The Comey Rule” is both impossible to watch and impossible to look away from… Trump — unacknowledged and dominant as a fart — sitting hunched over in the middle of the room, mumbling about ratings and whores. It’s a performance to make the flesh crawl, and Ray gets us every lip-smack and sniff.

Daniel Fienberg, The Hollywood Reporter

With squinting, sneering, sniffling intensity, Gleeson plays Trump as a clever and calculating bully of weaker men, blindly obtuse one second and acutely manipulative the next. He’s a lumbering, land-bound, poorly dressed manatee of a man, but to be underestimated at your own peril. Gleeson’s accent and intonations waver, yet he captures an interiority the real Trump rarely exposes. It’s a mediocre impression and possibly a great performance.

Alex McLevy, The A.V. Club

Gleeson does a better job than anyone has yet of finding a sort of horrific humanity inside the man. Wisely, he underplays Trump, making him more a weary solipsist than ranting buffoon, with a lived-in sense of lazy entitlement that feels honest and unsettlingly true. It takes a while to get past the strange not-quite-resemblance of the two men, but after the initial weirdness of it wears off, Gleeson’s performance starts to feel downright revelatory, as though he uncovered the Rosetta Stone to Trump’s soul, or lack thereof.

Making current events into history

James Poniewozik, The New York Times

Given how much it rehashes recent events, albeit with a fine cast, I’m not sure what interest “The Comey Rule” will have beyond people whose copies of the Mueller Report are already well thumbed. (There’s more to be learned from “Agents of Chaos,” the chilling Alex Gibney documentary, which premiered on HBO this week, about Russia’s 2016 election influence campaign and its American enablers.)

Nell Minow, RogerEbert.com

This Washington story does not have as satisfying a conclusion, at least not yet, perhaps because we are still in the middle of it. Some incidents depicted here have been overtaken by far more momentous events, including the impeachment proceedings and criminal convictions or guilty pleas involving a number of Trump associates. 

This retelling, based on the experiences of one person whose tenure in the Trump administration was under five months, is too focused on the trees instead of the forest for even this hard-core Washington lawyer and policy wonk. 

Laura Miller, Slate

It’s not the most entertaining material (and it illustrates why Aaron Sorkin, when covering similar ground, had his actors talk so fast), but it’s not meant to be. In the perverse context of 2020, the unexciting vision of the federal government functioning as it’s supposed to, with a punctiliousness that can only be called bureaucratic, is strangely soothing.

Kristen Baldwin, Entertainment Weekly

For the pro-Trump crowd, The Comey Rule is destined to be dismissed as more #FakeNews from liberal Hollyweirdos. For everyone else, it offers the uniquely punishing experience of repeating history even as we continue to live through it.

Daniel D’Addario, Variety

In Trump, Comey found someone whose blind avarice provided a mirror image to his rigid insistence upon protocol; that neither party would bend made it inevitable that one would get snapped. But this series fails to find anything provocative or narratively rich in Comey’s dismissal from government, in part because we at home know the man never really went away.

Overall thoughts

James Poniewozik, The New York Times

“The Comey Rule” is not good drama; it’s clunky, self-serious and melodramatic. But it makes an unsparing point amid our own election season.

It says that anyone, like its subject, who complacently assumed in 2015 and 2016 that everyone would be fine, who thought that propriety and rules could constrain forces that care about neither, who worried more about appearances than consequences, was a fool.

Sam Thielman, NBC News

“The Comey Rule”… could have reached less for Shakespeare and more for Harold Pinter, with an appropriate lack of respect for people who bit and scratched their way to the pinnacles of power. But Ray isn’t Pinter and “The Comey Rule” isn’t a tragedy. It’s just kind of pitiful, and its pity is wasted on the wrong people.

Laura Miller, Slate

The miniseries ends in an off-putting orgy of Comey hagiography, reuniting its hero with his wholesome family and leaving Rosenstein floating the prospect of wearing a wire to White House meetings and raving, “It’s so crazy in there!” But however credulous Ray is about Comey, the larger truth of The Comey Rule is incontestable. It’s the story of institutions run in accordance with norms and traditions that seem permanent but prove terrifyingly fragile. Comey gets out, but the rest of us are still living in the sequel.

Kristen Baldwin, Entertainment Weekly

Ray portrays [Rod Rosenstein] almost like the Salieri to Comey’s Mozart. He resents Comey’s success, his easy rapport with underlings, the devotion he inspires in his team. But his assertions that Comey is a phony, a guy driven by ego over duty — they exist in a vacuum, leaving us to draw whatever conclusions we drew years ago.

Daniel Fienberg, The Hollywood Reporter

Those seeking confirmation that Comey is a villain, either for torpedoing Hillary Clinton in the lead-up to the 2016 election or complicating Trump’s early tenure with the Steele dossier or other Russian inquiries, will find it. Ditto anybody who chooses to view Comey as a paragon of the ideals of service, however self-destructive.

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