Showtime miniseries is more like an anti-Trump Twitter feed than a film
Somehow or other, Showtime aired its two-part series The Comey Rule before the upcoming presidential election. Maybe it was kismet, and not just the public complaint from writer/director Billy Ray when the network initially scheduled it for late November. At any rate, this story about Donald Trump’s election, and what ensued within the Federal Government thereafter, is now out there for all the world to see. To those who think that the ascension of Trump to the presidency in 2016 was a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions, it will serve as a further confirmation of the horror they’ve suffered through since then. To anybody who prefers that a TV show or film have a coherent story to tell, and compelling and sympathetic characters to drive that story, it’s a wash.
Early on, the show gives a pretty solid clue as to just how much it cares about the facts it’s purporting to deliver. We’re in a darkened FBI briefing room, Director James Comey (Jeff Daniels) receiving intelligence about contacts between members of the Trump campaign and Russian agents. Up on the screen above the peering heads, mini-dossiers appear. First it’s Carter Page, foreign policy advisor, born 6/3/1971. Next is Michael Flynn, senior advisor, born 12/24/1971. Except Flynn was born thirteen years before that, in 1958. A small detail, perhaps, but if The Comey Rule wants its viewers to take it seriously, it really ought to get the little things right.
It’s not just in that inattention, but in its whole thrust, that the show depends on the goodwill of its viewers. The character of Donald Trump (Brendan Gleeson) doesn’t appear in the first episode, but returns again and again in the second, the better to make everything seem dirty. Here he is eating an Egg McMuffin and a half a glass of water. Here he is scarfing down ice cream like a hog, while Mr. Comey barely touches his own. Here he is mixing up the king of Jordan and the president of Egypt. He’s a schmuck, right? That may be well and true, but the show lazily presumes that its audience already agrees. This isn’t art, it’s a screed.
Early in the second episode of the Comey Rule, President Obama (Kingsley Ben-Adir) is preparing himself to head out from the Oval Office and go to Trump’s inauguration. There’s a shot, probably meant to be touching, of him from behind, leaning forward with his hands out to either side, pressing down onto his desk. The weight of what’s happened lies heavy on him. We’ve just seen him doing all he can, calling in the resources of the DOJ and FBI, to subvert Trump in the election, based on rumors of Russian interference. Yet he’s failed, and we don’t get the idea that he’s somebody who’s used to failure. Underlying all of this, of course, is the presumption that Trump and his campaign worked with Russia, one way or another, to defeat Hillary Clinton. It’s as though the Mueller Report never happened.
This show, of course, lets a character call the long-debunked Steele Dossier a “credible source.” Granted, that’s when the report first comes to the attention of the FBI, but it never gets around to correcting itself. It also has its Trump character say “my behavior has been unimpeachable,” because it can’t manage subtle irony. Toward the end of the show, Comey walks into the FBI offices, the morning after another improprietous meeting Trump insisted on, to the tune of sentimental piano-tinkling.
He opens the door to the situation room, and surveys all of his underlings working away at the question of whether Trump & co. colluded with Russia in the election. The camera takes on his perspective, and passes across his staff, all of them diligently perusing crammed binders of paper. The piano drifts on, and we see his face again. He’s smiling on all and sundry, the benevolent master of truth and justice. Somehow he doesn’t raise his right hand and make the sign of the cross over them, but it comes pretty close.
All of the show’s political tendentiousness is neither here nor there, in the end. It may be laughable that Comey, after he’s fired, tells the members of an FBI field office that they’re all “Honest. Fearless. Independent. Patriotic.” Maybe it’s a moving, if aspirational, sentiment. But it doesn’t seem as though Billy Ray and company are really trying to convince anybody that Comey and his FBI were doing righteous work, investigating Trump. They’re taking for granted that their viewers already think there were some serious shenanigans going on.
And so there’s no real drama to any of it, just confirmation after confirmation of what everyone presumed at the start. The film adaptation of All the President’s Men, like The Comey Rule, came out two years after the book it was based on was published. One of those was a tight, self-contained, and effective story. One was not.