Just weeks from another US presidential election, here is a polished if ponderous three-hour “mini series”, in four parts, about what happened last time, centred around the former head of the FBI, James Comey. Imagine a version of The West Wing with all the jokes removed and the miserable pathos of knowing it all really happened, and you’ll be getting close to the tone of Sky Atlantic’s The Comey Rule.
Jeff Daniels stars as the FBI director, appointed by Barack Obama in 2013, whose career was defined by his actions during the Hillary Clinton email saga and the accusations of Russian meddling. He’s principled to the point of pig-headedness, while refusing to acknowledge the impact his department’s proclamations will have on the upcoming vote. Daniels is surrounded by a starry ensemble, including Michael Kelly as his deputy, Andrew McCabe, Holly Hunter as deputy attorney general, Sally Yates, and Oona Chaplin as abrasive federal prosecutor, Lisa Page. Jennifer Ehle plays Comey’s wife, Patrice, who has to confront her husband about what his decisions will mean for the family.
Inevitably, a lot of the pre-publicity talk was about Brendan Gleeson’s take on Trump himself, the first time the president has been portrayed in a major drama since he took office. He doesn’t appear for the first hour and a half. It’s alarming when he does, not because of the wig or orange make-up. Gleeson doesn’t go for all-out impersonation, which is fine, but nor does he get especially close to the spirit of the man. This Trump has obvious gravitas and intelligence. On Saturday Night Live, Alec Baldwin’s Trump was funny but not as funny as the real thing. I wonder if Trump is so sui generis that it’s impossible for any actor to do him justice.
Written and directed by Billy Ray, who wrote Captain Phillips, The Comey Rule looks polished and has a smart script, which lays out a lot of procedural detail in language that feels authentically brisk and jargony without being incomprehensible. A surprising amount of tension builds around outcomes we already know. But at three and a half hours, it is far too long, and too often slips into the kind of self-regard and portentousness Americans are so fond of showing towards their major institutions. Comey gives so many pompous speeches about “duty” and “mission”, sometimes to stirring music, that we have to conclude the programme agrees with him. For the rest of us, the bigger question is how, despite all these devoted public servants, a rogue elephant ended up in the world’s most important job. It couldn’t happen again, could it?
‘The Comey Rule’ concludes with episodes 3 and 4 on Sky Atlantic on Wednesday from 9pm