In the first part, Comey (Jeff Daniels) does what he feels he is duty-bound to do: reopen an FBI investigation (code name: Midyear Exam) into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while serving as secretary of state — and reopening it mere days before Americans head to the polls. Comey’s wife, Patrice (Jennifer Ehle), begs him to wait. Think of women everywhere, she says. Think of his daughters. “You are going to convince everyone that she is ‘Crooked Hillary.’ ”
In the second night, the good ship Comey is then inexorably and deservedly sucked into the Trump tractor beam, as the director’s top team at the FBI digs in on a new investigation (code name: Crossfire Hurricane) into Russian election interference, and Comey is forced into an inappropriate White House photo op and later summoned to a private dinner at which his loyalty is demanded, goon-like, from the president (Brendan Gleeson).
“[Comey] thinks that being right will save him,” a colleague observes. “It won’t.”
“The Comey Rule,” directed and adapted by Billy Ray from Comey’s book “A Higher Loyalty,” is both helped and hindered by the fact that its story is still disturbingly relevant. It’s a reenactment of one nightmare that we are invited to watch while still having a potentially worse nightmare.
Without any time for the events seen here to take on even the barest layer of historical patina, the miniseries instead lives closer to “Saturday Night Live” sketches, which are judged less on their content and more on their makeup and voice impressions and audience-approved casting cameos. This leaves Daniels in the unfortunate position of having to convey authenticity in the lead role as the principled but doomed public servant who, viewers are repeatedly shown, was the victim of his own straight-arrow determination to follow the rules at a moment when the rules were being used to supply fuel for a perpetual dumpster fire.
Never once in about 3½ total hours of “The Comey Rule” can one completely buy into Daniels’s performance, for reasons as trivial as a haircut and as valid, yet blandly amorphous, as demeanor. From start to finish, Daniels’s Comey is a serviceable portrayal, but it isn’t all that distinguishable from the actor’s recent work as a cable news anchor and a counterterrorism expert.
The series begins in 2013 as Comey is summoned to the White House when President Barack Obama (Kingsley Ben-Adir) is tasked with picking a new FBI director, who typically serves a 10-year term and, as both men agree, has as little contact as possible with the president — by design. The scene also can’t help but play as an audition before its audience, who will understandably struggle with each casting decision, underscoring the subjective problem in any TV movie based on real life: Are we looking for perfect clones or good actors?
If the answer rests simply in makeup and wigs, then the real work belongs to Irish actor Gleeson (“Mr. Mercedes”), who doesn’t make his entrance as Trump until Part 2. Here, none of the leeway afforded to Daniels can apply. Everything has to be exactly right, in an artificial sense. Trump may be one of the few people on the planet (and perhaps only president) for whom caricature will suffice, because we still have little real-world proof that there is much to the man besides caricature.
Gleeson works harder than he has to, to deliver something more than just another riff on a Trump impression; while never completely convincing, he does impart the right mix of ignorance, arrogance and malevolence. No ambiguity is even required anymore; “The Comey Rule” rightly decides that there’s no essential mystery to solve about the president. The problems speak for themselves — not just from Comey’s memoir but from the continued chaos of the actual TV news reports that provide a constant, thunderous din throughout the miniseries.
Although Ray has streamlined the story as best he can, “The Comey Rule” is full of important characters who each get as much time as required to explain their role in all this, and not one second more, which can make it seem like a waste of strong talent in certain cases (Holly Hunter’s brief turn as acting attorney general Sally Yates, for example). And not enough time is spent where a viewer might like to linger, such as the extramarital shenanigans going on between FBI agent Peter Strzok (Steven Pasquale) and FBI lawyer Lisa Page (Oona Chaplin) while both were working on the Midyear Exam and Crossfire Hurricane investigations. To its credit, however, “The Comey Rule” is helpfully generous with adding names and jobs titles on the screen as the players come and go, something that true-story dramas won’t often deign to do.
An omniscient narrative thread hangs on the resentful musings of Rod J. Rosenstein (“Halt and Catch Fire’s” Scoot McNairy), who, in his brief and also doomed tenure as assistant attorney general, tries to give a young Justice Department aide (Dalmar Abuzeid) a bigger and more cynical picture of how Comey ran afoul of . . . what, his own hubris? Fate?
The story’s unsettled nature is proof enough that all of this still needs time to ferment before anyone tries to make it into captivating material for TV and film. Other than being able to say it got there first, “The Comey Rule” could certainly have waited — until after the election, or until some other era down the road.
The Comey Rule (two parts) premieres Sunday, Sept. 27, at 9 p.m. on Showtime. Part 2 airs Monday, Sept. 28.