Whatever you do, don’t start “The Comey Rule” expecting anything close to objectivity. Showtime’s new limited series about James Comey is a full-on effort to vindicate the former FBI director for his actions before and after the 2016 presidential election. It transforms Comey, the guy who reopened the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private e-mail server 11 days before the vote, into a “West Wing”-styled hero, a man whose great ethical backbone — and not his decision-making or his naiveté — is what got him into trouble.
Even if you’re inclined to respect Comey, the sanctimony of “The Comey Rule” just might make you regret it. The script regularly has Comey revealing to us his inner goodness — asking a guard about his daughter’s recital, for no plot-related reason, for example — like the second coming of the fictional President Bartlet. As Comey, Jeff Daniels puts on his best noble face, the same one he used in “The Newsroom,” to remind us that he’s more patriotic than you are. OK, so he’s a “showboat,” as the two-parter’s Rod Rosenstein (played by Scoot McNairy) says critically in the premiere, which airs Sunday at 9 p.m. As if that line indicates that “The Comey Rule” is willing to honestly identify Comey’s flaws. As if beloved American uber-hero Tom Hanks isn’t a showboat, too.
Throughout, Comey’s wife, Patrice Failor, looks at him with adoringly sympathetic eyes, even if, at times, as a Hillary supporter, she is frustrated with her husband’s role in the election results. As Patrice, Jennifer Ehle — she was Lizzie Bennet in the 1995 “Pride and Prejudice” miniseries — doesn’t stand a chance of developing a character when the script gives her lines such as, “For once in your life, don’t do your duty.” In other words, stop being the honorable, principled guy that you definitely are. The rest of the supporting cast, including Holly Hunter as Sally Yates, also fail to get enough time to develop their characters; the script barely has time to give us more than names, jobs, and whether they’re good (on Comey’s side) or bad (on President Trump’s side). Blink and you’ll miss Peter Coyote as Robert Mueller and Joe Lo Truglio as Jeff Sessions.
I suppose this scripted exoneration shouldn’t come as a surprise, as the show’s “but her e-mails” material gives way to the FBI investigation of Russian election interference and Comey’s unsuccessful efforts to resist overtures from Trump, played by Brendan Gleeson with a cartoonish Mafia-thug mug. After all, “The Comey Rule” is an adaptation of Comey’s memoir, “A Higher Loyalty,” which is by definition a kind of self-defense. Clinton is no fan of Comey, Trump is a sworn enemy, and the American public flinches at the sound of his name; I can understand his desire to justify his actions.
But there’s another reason to distrust the “The Comey Rule,” which was adapted and directed by Billy Ray. We are still living in the chaotic, frighteningly divided world that erupted when Trump won the election; we are still coping with Russian interference in our election as Nov. 3 comes at us fast. The show, whose second part premieres on Monday at 9 p.m., has arrived too soon. We jokingly say, “Too soon,” meaning it is too soon to be making jokes about something difficult. Did you hear the one about the president who won’t guarantee a peaceful transfer of power? Too soon, too soon.
But with “The Comey Rule,” I mean the phrase “too soon” in a non-jokey, more literal way. It’s not too soon because its events are so recent that they still sting. It’s just too soon to assess this painful bit of recent history, too soon to make pronouncements about why it happened and what it means. The two-part series tells its story — one of the more important political stories of the century so far — without the benefit of perspective. It has none of the artfulness and consideration that can lift a political story above its specifics into something wiser and more rooted in human nature.
In a way, with its political sketches, “Saturday Night Live” does what “The Comey Rule” does, albeit with humor. They’re both slanted reenactments of something fresh in our collective memory, not thoughtful takes on historical events. Other movies taking on recent history, including HBO’s “Recount” and “Game Change,” have suffered somewhat from the same problem — the absence of distance and context and the presence of too many step-by-step recreations. Beyond Comey’s mistakes, are there systemic issues and precedents that led up to the president of the United States pressuring the head of the FBI to give up the Russia investigation? Can this story offer any insight, beyond showing us what we already know? Did it really need to be rushed to the screen before it was fully baked?