Showtime's two-part political miniseries The Comey Rule was bound to be divisive. Its main subject, former FBI Director James Comey (portrayed by Jeff Daniels), is a lightning rod for many on the left and right of America's political spectrum for his choices in the months leading up to and following the 2016 presidential election. Not everyone has welcomed the idea of a TV series casting Comey in a sympathetic light so close to yet another consequential presidential election (TV Guide's own Liam Mathews said the series “operates from a false premise”). However, creator Billy Ray set out to chronicle the experience of an institutionalist who helped cause, and was then punished by, Donald Trump's (Brendan Gleeson) election and early presidency. To that end, The Comey Rule is successful.
Based largely on Comey's own telling of the events around the 2016 U.S. presidential election in his book A Higher Loyalty, The Comey Rule focuses in its first half on Comey's controversial handling of the FBI's investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server. The second part of the miniseries dramatizes the precarious relationship Comey developed with President Donald Trump in the early days of the Trump administration, including the infamous meeting in which Trump allegedly demanded “loyalty” from Comey, as well as Trump's attempts to influence the FBI's investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn (William Sadler). The miniseries concludes with Trump's eventual firing of Comey, but the political and legal ramifications of the events of The Comey Rule are still very much ongoing.
TV Guide spoke with Ray about the pressure that he experienced in dramatizing these events so close to Trump's bid for reelection, how James Comey himself reacted to the series' unofficial theme song, and how Gleeson crafted his performance.
This is the first major dramatization of the Trump administration, and it could be the only one to air in the Trump era if the 2020 election doesn't go his way. Did you think about that at all when you were making this — how this could be the only real-time production to encapsulate what's happening?
Billy Ray: I was acutely aware of that in the writing process, and in prep, and in the shoot, and in the edit. We were going to get the first shot at history; we were doing the first dramatic interpretation of Trump. Thank god I got Brendan Gleeson to do it. You know, if you ask an average American what happened on Apollo 13, their frame of reference is going to be the Ron Howard movie — it's just the way we're wired. So when people ask a couple years from now, “What did the Trump presidency feel like?” I'm hoping that we're going to be that frame of reference. And that's a great responsibility and an amazing opportunity that most writer-directors just don't get afforded. So yes, I was very, very aware of it.
Speaking of Brendan Gleeson's portrayal of Donald Trump, one thing I noticed about it is that you don't really lean into the clownishness of him. Instead, we see a very serious, dangerous side of him. Is that because of this particular story you're telling, or is that because you wanted to show a menacing side?
Ray: I think it's who Donald Trump actually is. We have a protagonist in this story, and it's James Comey. And this is how Donald Trump presented himself to our protagonist. So that's the story that we're telling, but in terms of the actual portrayal of Trump, you know, Brendan and I had lots of conversations about not wanting to do a caricature version. We both love Alec Baldwin, and we both love those [Saturday Night Live] skits, but that's not what we're doing. So in our version, Trump's hair was going to be less cartoonish than his actual hair; his makeup was going to be less cartoonish; his suits were going to fit a little better. We felt it was prudent to err on the side of caution there.
The first part of the series shows Comey trying to thread the needle in these complicated scenarios, with regard to the email investigation and then the Trump-Russia investigation. Was that something you experienced, too, creating this series ahead of the 2020 election and relitigating issues that were very controversial? Did you feel that pressure that if you did this wrong, it could impact people in an unintended way?
Ray: Oh, sure. We were planning on airing this before the election the entire time that we were making it. Yeah, that's a pretty profound responsibility. My god, I don't want to throw an election one way or the other, especially by getting something wrong. So we had to be true to the spirit of events at the same time that we were trying to tell something dramatically and emotionally and in a powerful, compelling way. I don't think I've ever had more plates to spin as a writer-director, but it was time to step up to the moment. I mean, this is an all-hands-on-deck moment for our democracy, and everybody had to bring their best, and on this show everybody did.
There's a point in the series when FBI attorney Trisha Anderson (Amy Seimetz) says it was hypocritical for the Midyear team to go public with updates on the Clinton email probe without really allowing people to know what was going on with Trump and Russia. When you were researching this, did you find that this was something that was actually said, or is that just creative liberty?
Ray: Well, the fact is, inside the FBI I don't think they ever for a second really seriously considered going out with the Trump-Russia story in a public fashion, because in an intel case, you never want to tell Russia what you have on them. But I felt it was very important for that point to be articulated so that people understood the contrast between the two.
Another interesting aspect of the miniseries was the portrayal of FBI attorney Lisa Page (Oona Chaplin) and the way people would talk about her being unbearable to teammates. And then there were several other winks to misogyny in this series. Was that another thing that you felt like you needed to insert to explain what happened in 2016?
Ray: I thought that it was important to talk about the dynamic between [Andrew] McCabe (Michael Kelly) and Page because McCabe was her champion. And there were people inside those rooms who felt that Lisa could be difficult, and I thought it was significant that McCabe defended her and believed in her as completely as he did. It was just part of the story to me. I'm curious when you say that there are other winks at misogyny; tell me what you mean.
There's the shot in the FBI, the next day after the election, when someone writes on their computer screen, “Clinton got what she deserved.” And then there's the moment when the doctor and all these guys kind of do an “attaboy” to James Comey.
Ray: There's also a moment in there where James Baker (Steve Zissis) is on his way into the skiff, and another FBI employee says, “Are you on Midyear? I hope you nail that bitch.” Those things really happened. The joke of Donald Trump's assault on the FBI, which would be appalling on its face, is that the FBI was so hugely anti-Hillary. There were such pockets of it inside the FBI. It's amazing to me that anybody would ever believe otherwise.
Several people who were often accused of being anti-Trump are portrayed in the series as being harsher on Hillary.
Ray: They absolutely were. Part of the story is how heartbreaking it is to be a public servant. Part of the heartbreak is that they've all been accused of wanting to take this president down. Lisa Page never did anything to this president. Neither did Peter Strzok (Steven Pasquale). In fact, they and the rest of the team did everything in their power to bring a case against Hillary Clinton. So to hear that story twisted into something about the FBI having it in for Donald Trump is perverse. The facts just don't support it.
There are a lot of moments in the story when James Comey blithely switches subjects and brings up things like dance recitals or says “How's your family?” Was the intent to show him being a bit disconnected from the results of his decisions? Even in the end, he kind of just walks away.
Ray: That's such an interesting interpretation of those moments. No, that was not the intention. The intention was to portray what a great boss he was, that no matter how much pressure he was under, the people who were working for him had their own lives and their own pressures and their own stresses, and he never stopped caring about them. If you would ask James Comey, the book that he wrote was about leadership. It was not about Donald Trump, and in a weird way, it wasn't even about him. It was about what kind of leader he was trying to be, and I was trying to capture that because I know that the people who worked closely with him believed in him completely, and it's partially because he takes such good care of them.
I know that you consulted with James Comey for this series. What was his reaction to the unofficial theme song, “F— You James Comey“?
Ray: It was not in the script; it was something that a very, very smart guy on my editorial team just found on YouTube. And they had cut like 20 seconds of it into the movie in a different place. And I said, “No, no, no, let's open night two with that whole song. Get me the whole song.” And we did, and then we cut the movie together, and Comey had no idea that that was coming. So when I sent him a link to see the first cut of the movie, that was certainly one of the things that I was most nervous about. And when he responded to the series, I said, “What did you think of the opening of night two?” And he said, “We all laughed our tails off at that. We loved it.” But that's Comey. That's who the guy is. He has a great sense of humor about himself. I know no one wants to believe this, he has enormous humility.
Would you ever have it in you to do a sequel about how things have been for these people since the events of this series?
Ray: I certainly would take that on if I thought there was a great story. Part of the thing about this is you can separate it out from all the politics; it's a great story. It's a story between a man in an institution with a really compelling character at the center and great characters around him, and lots of naturally cinematic, dramatic moments. If the sequel had that kind of pop to it, I certainly wouldn't want anyone else making it, that's for sure.
You've said that you like James Comey and believe in his integrity. Is there anyone else from this time period whose story you think should be dramatized like this, or that you would like to dramatize?
Ray: I think there's probably a story to be told in the heroes of journalism in the last four years. They have really been beating the drum, sometimes by themselves. Because the gears of government just sort of ground to a halt, and the government's ability or willingness to examine its own behavior seems to have vanished, where the only thing standing between us and complete authoritarianism was a really robust press. So I think there's probably a Woodward and Bernstein kind of story, an All the President's Men kind of movie to be made in the journalists that really draw a hard line. For example, the newspaper wars between The Washington Post and The New York Times early in the Trump administration — the reporting that they were doing was extraordinary. That's a story worth telling. Inside the government, it's tougher to find people like that because they've all been scared into silence. But I know that there are people who stood up and blew the whistle and did the right thing, and one of the things that Jeff Daniels talks about is that James Comey was probably the first whistleblower within the Trump administration. He worked for Donald Trump, but he challenged him. And very few people have had the nerve to do that because they all wind up as bodies by the side of the road. So I understand their reticence, but it makes for pretty slim pickings in terms of who the next movie might be about.
I was thinking you might say Dr. Fauci.
Ray: Oh yeah, Fauci! I pitched that movie to Brendan. I said, “Let's do the Fauci-Trump movie. Would you play Trump again?” And he said, “I'd rather play the virus.”
The Comey Rule is available on Showtime.