James Comey shuffles backwards and tries in vain to blend into a curtain. Donald Trump summons him across the room as photographers click furiously. The US president uses their handshake to aggressively yank Comey closer. “I look forward to working with you,” he mutters menacingly into the FBI director’s ear. “Let’s take a picture.”
This awkward real life incident from three years ago is now the stuff of a blockbuster TV drama. The Comey Rule, starring Jeff Daniels and Brendan Gleeson, offers a devastating portrayal of a president just five weeks before he seeks re-election. At nearly four hours, with a cast of Oscar and Emmy winners, it might be regarded as the longest and most star-studded attack ad in history.
“The Comey Rule is a horror film,” wrote Laura Miller on the Slate website, “and the monster is Donald Trump”.
The glossy miniseries looks set to be as divisive as Comey himself. TV critics have complained about its casting and audacious attempt to present contemporary events as history. Democrats are likely to quibble over its sympathetic portrayal of Comey, while Republicans may dismiss it as anti-Trump propaganda from the Hollywood elite.
Billy Ray, who wrote and directed the drama, said he is braced for the storm. “Donald Trump is not a person who in the past has taken criticism with a great deal of grace. I do think we’re going to be part of a broad national conversation about what happened in 2016 and the repercussions as they affect 2020.”
I think we’re going to be part of a broad national conversation about what happened in 2016 and the repercussions as they affect 2020Billy Ray
The drama is based on Comey’s 2018 memoir A Higher Loyalty and explores the former FBI director’s widely criticized oversight of dueling election year investigations: one into Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of emails, the other into contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russia. It then follows Comey’s excruciating interactions with President Trump, culminating in his firing – via cable news – in May 2017.
“What makes James Comey interesting as a character is that he is flawed,” Ray, 56, said by phone from Los Angeles. “I would never want to tell a story about somebody who was unflawed and he knows that I feel that way, and he knew that I felt that way from the jump.
“What I think about James Comey is he has never once said a word in public that has been proven to be untrue. It’s not like anything he has said has been close to untrue or shaky. You certainly cannot say that about Donald Trump or Michael Flynn or Sarah Huckabee Sanders or Mike Pence or anybody else in that administration. When it comes to truthfulness, I’ll stick with Comey.”
“But more importantly, I felt his story was very emotional and very compelling and just dramatic by its nature, and that if you captured it right, you’d wind up with a piece that was very harrowing and oddly hopeful by the end.”
Comey has become a punchbag for both left and right. After The Comey Rule is broadcast by Showtime on 27 and 28 September, he will testify before the Senate judiciary committee on 30 September, facing accusations from Republicans that he and his agency conspired against Trump in 2016.
Democrats, meanwhile, have never forgiven Comey for informing Congress that the FBI was reviewing more Clinton emails just 11 days before the election. When Comey tweeted a photo of himself wearing an “Elect more women” T-shirt last month, Clinton told comedian Stephen Colbert: “It was quite a surprising moment. I believe in redemption. I guess.”
But Ray, whose film credits include The Hunger Games and Captain Phillips, does not think Comey should be scapegoated for Clinton’s loss to Trump. “The tipping point in that election, the deciding factor, was the infiltration by the Russians. That came directly from James Clapper [ex-director of national intelligence]; that’s not a matter of conjecture; that’s fact. And they’re trying to do it again in 2020.”
“So I don’t accept the idea that James Comey tipped this election. What I do know is that before he sent that email to the Gang of Eight in Congress, he sat down with his team, his inner staff, as is depicted in the series, and they went through a very reasonable and intelligent weighing of alternatives and pluses and minuses. We may not love the decision that they came up with but you cannot in any way question the process by which those decisions were arrived at.”
The Comey Rule shows the FBI team agonizing over the choice and second guessing various scenarios, fearing that if it did not inform Congress, the news would leak anyway and be interpreted as a cover-up on Clinton’s behalf.
I don’t accept the idea that James Comey tipped this electionRay
Ray added: “Significantly, Comey sent an email to eight members of Congress and it was Jason Chaffetz of Utah who leaked it to Twitter, not Comey. It was a Republican who did that. So I think the blame is misplaced there and had the FBI not sent that email, Rudy Giuliani was absolutely gonna tip it on the news one way or another, so they really had no choice on that one.”
Ray spent time in Washington meeting dozens of people involved in the saga, including Comey sceptics. He allowed Comey to see the script, spend a day on set and see a couple of early cuts but says the former FBI director never tried to influence his portrayal.
Comey is played by Daniels, who has played characters of moral integrity in the TV series The Newsroom and the Broadway production of To Kill a Mockingbird. Ray says he was always the first choice. “One, you’ve got to have an actor who is just brilliant at what he does. Two, you’ve got to have someone who is credible because Comey is such a polarizing figure; I wanted someone that American audiences just trusted.”
“Three, I needed someone who I could physically believe was 6ft 8ins; Jeff is 6ft 3ins, so that was close enough. And then four, and maybe the most important thing, you had to have an actor who was so confident that he could be in a scene with Donald Trump, which is really the bells and whistles part, and that actor could trust the power of his own stillness, the power of his silence, and let another actor just do the fireworks and know that you weren’t going to get blown off the screen by it.”
Gleeson, however, turned down the role of Trump when it was first offered to him. Ray reasoned: “Why would a guy living happily in Ireland want to come and voluntarily expose himself to the flak he’s going to catch from Donald Trump? I’ll never know why he changed his mind but a month or so later he did, and thank God.
“I really like the idea of somebody who’s outside the American experience lending their point of view about this uniquely American character.”
Trump has been memorably parodied by Alec Baldwin on Saturday Night Live but Ray relished the chance to put him in a serious drama. “It might be the most fun I ever had writing a character. You just have such a wealth of options. Everything he says and does is cinematic. Donald Trump just sitting there doing nothing is at least interesting.
“So the trick with Trump was how do you edit because it’s such a temptation to just cram every insane thing he ever said into one series, and of course you can’t do that because you’re limited to two nights and he’s told, I think, 25,000 lies in office, so nobody can capture all that. But it just required some disciplined editing for me in the writing process.”
The cast also includes Holly Hunter as Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, Jennifer Ehle as Comey’s wife Patrice, Michael Kelly as Comey’s deputy Andrew McCabe, and Oona Chaplin and Steven Pasquale as FBI agents Lisa Page and Peter Strzok involved in an affair. Kingsley Ben-Adir, a British actor in his mid-30s, plays Barack Obama.
As Gleeson’s Trump, evocative of a charmless version of Marlon Brando as Don Corleone in The Godfather, flaunts his casual disregard for institutional norms and the rule of law, Daniels’ face becomes a mask conveying a national nightmare that does not end with the closing credits. Yet Ray remains optimistic about the future of America – with serious caveats.
“I believe that ultimately America is going to emerge from this period and we are going to succeed and survive. But what it’s going to require is a rigorous period of self examination where we as a country look at what we just did voluntarily to our democracy for the last four years.”
He added: “We’re going to have to ask ourselves some very hard questions about that. Now, that said, if we re-elect Donald Trump then all bets are off. I don’t actually know what’s going to happen to America and I’m not sure that the American experiment will actually survive it.”