The Comey Rule review: You actually begin to root for Trump

It is impossible for Brendan Gleeson to give a serious performance as Donald Trump

Like an impressionist, Gleeson must work from the outside in

This article contains spoilers. The main events detailed in The Comey Rule (Sky Atlantic, Wednesday, 9pm), a four-part political drama of glossy, swollen seriousness, based on the former FBI director James Comey’s self-valorising book A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership, take place between 2015 and 2017. (Parts one and two were screened this Wednesday; three and four are next week.)

Given the exhausting cycle of enraging, depressing and absurd events ever since, that now resembles ancient history. So much so, in fact, that this short, tumultuous period in US politics may now look rather quaint to anyone with a functioning Twitter account or who invested five minutes watching this week’s US presidential debate.

It begins with an investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server as secretary of state, an exhaustive, tedious fiasco that Comey pursued doggedly and publicly, likely damaging her bid for the White House in the final straight.

It ends with Comey's testimony before the US Senate, shortly after his abrupt dismissal by Donald Trump following the FBI's Russia investigation – and, notoriously, Comey's reluctance to pledge Trump anything less conditional than "honest loyalty".


What does the show owe Comey, though, here portrayed by Jeff Daniels as a sententious Dudley Do-Right? Is this depiction of Comey as a tragic hero whose fatal flaw, it seems, was unwavering impartiality, an honest appraisal? Or one loyal to Comey's own towering estimation?

The official trailer for The Comey Rule, starring Brendan Gleeson as US president Donald Trump and Jeff Daniels as former FBI Director James Comey. Video: Showtime
Jeff Daniels as James Comey

In an unconvincing early bid for some critical distance, writer-director Billy Ray introduces a weasly Rod Rosenstein (Scoot McNairy) as a kind of resentful narrator – a bitter, gauche Salieri complaining about Comey's "showboating", upright, people-person Mozart.

That rings about as true as the high-minded seriousness slathered thick across these accumulated three-and-a-half hours, daubed throughout with starry performances (Michael Kelly’s frowning G-man Andrew McCabe, Holly Hunter’s folksy/salty Sally Yates), played mostly in low-lit, wood-panelled rooms, and given the sombre strains of worried string instruments.

These, the hallmarks of solemn political dramas, are hard to fully reconcile with a plot that must pay due attention to an FBI director attempting to disappear into a curtain, repeated intelligence briefings on the mechanics of “golden showers” and a gold-plated huckster who gave the world Miss Universe, The Apprentice and barely a moment’s peace.

And that’s just it. The show seems to yearn for a time of good, clear American values (where Hunter’s Yates will deliver egregious, patronising scenes extolling America’s “best self”) and even clean cut American scandals, where FBI suits pore over confiscated cell phones and hard drives, all summoned with such heavy-handed moralising and plain self-satisfaction you actually begin to root for the monster.

He appears, after the same kind of breath-bating delay Spielberg once reserved for the arrival of sharks or T-Rexes, well into the third episode in the redoubtable shape of Brendan Gleeson.

Now, first things first. It is impossible for anyone to give a serious performance as Donald Trump. This is a figure at once far beyond parody and still very short of reality. To simply emulate his hairstyle is to court ridicule.

Like an impressionist, Gleeson must work from the outside in – the oyster-shucking lips, the random, buffeting speech patterns – because Trump has no interiority to fathom. “I saw you on TV,” he frequently approves, a creature of pure surface. Gleeson’s Trump, more growling mafioso than Troll-in-Chief, is amusing and horrifying, like the man himself.

To enjoy the performance, then, is to feel defeated. Trump has so successfully corrupted and debased politics that shows like this, so intent on seriousness, feel like an anachronism.

Nobody needs to revisit the toothless stenographic satire of Saturday Night Live, but you do wonder what Adam McKay, the more scabrous director of Vice, might have done with similar material.

This show, beginning its broadcast, coincidentally, on the same day Comey reappeared before a vengeful Republican Senate, appeals finally to the durability of American decency. But it's hard to say it honestly believes in it.