A-Ron’s New Movie Reviews: “The Comey Rule” (2020)

•This Is A Showtime Original Film And Available Exclusively On Showtime

Premiering exclusively (September 27 and 28th) on Showtime as a three and a half hour, two part film and based on the memoir by James Comey. “The Comey Rule” is written and directed by Billy Ray, a veteran of political dramas who directs with an almost Clint Eastwood-like ease to it and lets his actors do the heavy lifting by showcasing their stellar performances. While the political aficionados won’t discover anything new nor the ones who have read Comey’s memoir. “The Comey Rule” still remains engrossing and gut-wrenching. Star Jeff Daniels is especially good at showing us Comey’s thoughtful, accessible, reassuringly calm expression when faced with terrible problems and pressures. Brendan Gleeson plays Trump as what we always exactly see on television, his portrayal of Trump is never a fully-formed character. While Gleeson’s Trump is barely in the first half of the film, he is there skulking in the shadows like a Bond villain. Once he appears Gleeson is unnerving as Trump. It’s a treat to watch both Jeff Daniels and Brendan Gleeson in their roles as both actors are giving masterclass performances. There’s still something useful about seeing the dry pages of the nonfiction book brought to life, in a production that’s not perfect but shouldn’t be faulted for it’s missteps. It achieves what it set out to do and for a nearly three and a half hour film, it all hums along with the energy of a well oiled political drama.

Screenwriter Billy Ray has been writing for 30 years with an impressive career of over twenty credits as a screenwriter on: “Flightplan”, “State Of Play”, “The Hunger Games”, “Captain Phillips”, “Overlord” and recent blockbusters “Gemini Man” and “Terminator Dark Fate”. He broke out in 2003 and 2007 writing and directing his first two features “Shattered Glass” and “Breach” which both received critical acclaim. While taking the directors chair is not something he does often, Billy Ray does triple duty as executive producer, writer and director in his newest film “The Comey Rule”.

Premiering exclusively (September 27 and 28th) on Showtime as a three and a half hour, two part film and based on the memoir by James Comey “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership”. Billy Ray’s “The Comey Rule” was originally scheduled by Showtime to premiere after the 2020 election, but Ray had fought to advance the date to air before the first of the two 2020 Presidential debates. Billy Ray is a veteran of political dramas and this is right up his wheelhouse. He directs with an almost Clint Eastwood-like ease to it and lets his actors do the heavy lifting showcasing their stellar performances. 

“The Comey Rule” may feel a bit book report-ish to those who followed the 2016 election cycle obsessively. While the political aficionados won’t discover anything new nor will the ones who have read Comey’s memoir. But “The Comey Rule” still remains engrossing as the first night of the two-parter focuses on FBI director James Comey (played by Jeff Daniels), who just days ahead of the polls, made the controversial decision to initiate an investigation into presidential candidate Hilary Clinton’s emails. 

During her tenure as United States Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton drew controversy by using a private email server for official public communications rather than using official State Department email accounts maintained on secure federal servers. The FBI investigation led by Comey found Clinton’s server with over 100 emails containing classified information, including 65 emails deemed “Secret” and 22 deemed “Top Secret”. An additional 2,093 emails not marked classified were retroactively classified by the State Department.

Comey led the investigation despite several of his top advisors and his own family telling advising him otherwise. The contents of the emails were never the issue, but the optics of a presidential candidate being investigated by the FBI sent a message to the voters, that the candidate might be dishonest. Many Clinton supporters claim his decisions less than two weeks before the 2016 election is what killed the Clinton campaign and cost her the presidency. Comey also received heavy criticism from Republicans after it was revealed that he had begun drafting an exoneration letter for Clinton before the investigation was complete.

The second half of the film is almost a battle of verbal wits much like Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon” as the tension is ratcheted up finding Comey pitted against President Trump (played by Brendan Gleeson). The two parter all builds to the show’s most riveting scene, a meeting over a private dinner of shrimp cocktail and vanilla ice cream between Comey and Trump at the White House. The newly elected president, demands Comey’s loyalty like a mob boss. It’s the centrepiece of the show; a brilliant crescendo before the house of cards comes tumbling down.

“The Comey Rule” certainly paints a damning portrait of Trump, but it’s nothing that those who have read the book or just watching the nightly news haven’t heard. I also don’t need to tell you how Comey and Trump’s “relationship” sours, or how this story ends. But “The Comey Rule” is as gut-wrenching fictionalized as it was in real life. What’s perhaps more painful is being reminded that a smart, honorable man like Comey, who only “wanted to stop the bad guys” opened the floodgates in believing that he was the moral compass of the FBI.

In a teleconference with reporters earlier this month, Billy Ray said he used Comey’s book, as a jumping-off point but augmented it with his own research, including dozens of interviews. Ray said “We didn’t make this series to change people’s votes. The reason that I did this was because I felt that the Russians had had a profound and unhappy effect on our political process in 2016 and I wanted the American public to know about that before they went to the polls in 2020”.

While he admits to believing in Comey’s integrity, Ray said he’s not trying to venerate him. “It’s not my goal to wind up with people erecting statues of Jim Comey or tearing them down. I just want to tell the story of how heartbreaking it can be to be a public servant in the current landscape of America”. Billy Ray’s film hits all the inflection points of the 2016 election and its aftermath from Russia’s hack of the DNC; Pizzagate; Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s impromptu meeting with Bill Clinton on a tarmac in Phoenix; the discovery of Clinton emails on a laptop belonging to Anthony Weiner; the Steele dossier and of course the events with Trump that led to the President firing Janes Comey as the director of the bureau. 

Comey came from a world of well established priorities and procedures, including a respect for authority and a sense that his good intentions and dedication to leadership could persuade anyone. Comey cares a lot about leadership. He stands in line at the FBI cafeteria and chats with the staff. He asks his driver about his daughter’s piano recital. He gives Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (Scoot McNairy) advice on how to make people feel more comfortable by asking them their favorite childhood candy. 

Daniels is especially good at showing us Comey’s thoughtful, accessible, reassuringly calm expression when faced with terrible problems and pressures, Comey gives his “you have my full attention and we will solve this” face or when he responds to an update with a quick but quiet, “Say more”. And then, there is his benignly blank look on his face when he must be thinking, “For the first time in my adult life, I am completely unprepared”. Daniels is especially good at displaying Comey’s expressions including his quiet discomfort over Trump’s attempts to woo him and to secure his “loyalty” with small gestures, which Billy Ray highlights with surreal slow-motion around those interactions. Comey rarely reveals what is going on in mind, unless it is to bark sharp orders and exude authority. He communicates not in words, but expressions.

Played with a growly, lion-like intensity by the great Brendan Gleeson, Trump is a man that undoes Comey’s belief in codes and norms, he makes Comey squirm. Daniels and Gleeson is in their finest moments when their onscreen together, projecting Comey’s deep discomfort with a stiff lip and a constipated like expression. Comey is enlightenment philosophy and intellect, while Trump is an animal and a bully. Gleeson captures his rabidness, twitching brows, the darting eyes, the snarling lips, the breathy delivery, the rambling self-flattery and nonsensical asides. It’s all there in Gleeson’s performance. 

Brendan Gleeson plays Trump as what we always exactly see on television, his portrayal of Trump is never a fully-formed character. He is petty, refers to himself in the third person. He brags about how popular and successful he is and complains about the media. His responses are off the point and he changes the subject abruptly. Gleeson’s Trump is barely in the first episode, instead skulking in the shadows like a Bond villain. Once he appears Gleeson is unnerving as Trump. It’s a treat to watch both Jeff Daniels and Brendan Gleeson in their roles as neither of them is doing an impression of their real life counter parts. They are both giving masterclass performances. 

The film is defined by how remarkably well the cast lines up with their real-life figures. The supporting players include Holly Hunter as Sally Yates , Michael Kelly as Andrew McCabe, Jonathan Banks as James Clapper, Steven Pasquale as Peter Strzok and Oona Chaplin as Lisa Page. Like everything else about the Trump presidency, “The Comey Rule” will unlikely change any hearts or minds. There’s still something useful about seeing the dry pages of the nonfiction book brought to life, in a production that’s not perfect but shouldn’t be faulted for it’s missteps. It achieves what it set out to do and for a nearly three and a half hour film, it all hums along with the energy of a well oiled political drama.

GRADE: ★★★★☆ (4 out of 5)

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros is the movie critic for Maui Watch. He lives on the beautiful island of Maui and is also a member of the elite Hawaii Film Critics Society and an active cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, where his Grandfather started his love for the movies.

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