The thing that James Comey will probably like best about “The Comey Rule,” if one believes its characterization of him, is that his name is in the title.
But he is not exactly the hero. He is not even, really, the star.
Comey (Jeff Daniels), the former F.B.I. director, gets more screen time than anyone else in Showtime’s two-night, three-and-a-half-hour special. But the real lead is Donald Trump (Brendan Gleeson), in the same sense that, regardless of its minutes on camera, the true lead of “Jaws” is the shark.
Given how much it rehashes recent events, albeit with a fine cast, I’m not sure what interest “The Comey Rule” will have beyond people whose copies of the Mueller Report are already well thumbed. (There’s more to be learned from “Agents of Chaos,” the chilling Alex Gibney documentary, which premiered on HBO this week, about Russia’s 2016 election influence campaign and its American enablers.)
But if you stick to the end, there is at least a lesson and a warning, if not the one that Comey — either the screen version here or the real-life one who’s become a media figure — intended.
In his book “A Higher Loyalty,” he appears to see his decisions, which very possibly swung the 2016 election and failed to keep the president from interfering in investigations, as noble if tragic acts of principle. As translated by the director and screenwriter Billy Ray, this is instead a slo-mo horror story, in which the worst lack all inhibition while the best are full of fatuous integrity.
The first half, which starts Sunday, is basically a prelude. It walks us through the role of the F.B.I. in 2015 and 2016 when it investigated Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server — with Comey making unusual public statements that damaged her campaign — while also looking, much more quietly, into increasingly disturbing signs that Russian intelligence was out to help Trump.
The first two hours blitz through the timeline and establish key players. So many familiar faces captioned with headline names pop up — Jonathan Banks as James Clapper! Holly Hunter as Sally Yates! — that it plays like a long, stone-cold-sober episode of “Drunk History.”
Daniels is inspired casting. Physically, he resembles the real Comey somewhat in stature (the ex-director still has a few inches on him). But having played figures of high-minded duty in “The Newsroom” and “The Looming Tower,” he captures his character’s starched righteousness wholly.
This time, however, there’s an ironic spin on the character. Comey’s actual rectitude is complicated by his fixation on the appearance of rectitude, his homey decency by smugness.
His precedent-breaking decisions to speak out on Clinton’s email practices were driven by worry over how he and the bureau would look later if — in his view, when — she became president. (He writes in “A Higher Loyalty” that he assumed she’d win.)
His guess proves wrong, but the day after the election he assures his devastated wife, Patrice (Jennifer Ehle), “We’re going to be OK.” True enough for him. He lost his job but wrote a best seller.
With that self-justifying memoir as a source, Ray makes the sharp choice to make Rod Rosenstein (Scoot McNairy), the deputy attorney general who wrote the memo recommending Comey’s 2017 firing, the quasi-narrator. Rosenstein bitterly introduces Comey as a self-righteous “showboat” (though, we discover, Rosenstein has his own blind spots and failings).
This is not, however, a production out to win over MAGA viewers. (At one point, it dramatizes one of the more eye-popping accusations of the Steele dossier.) The first night, we see Donald Trump only as shot from behind, a leering hulk parting the curtain at a Miss Universe pageant and pawing at a contestant’s bikini strap. He’s like the barely glimpsed monster in the first act of a creature feature, a rough beast slouching toward Pennsylvania Avenue.
It’s on Night 2, when President-Elect Trump emerges as a character, that the show really begins. In part, it’s simply that his crew of artless amateurs, relatives and B-list pols make for better TV. Not every portrayal works — Joe Lo Truglio as Jeff Sessions? — but it gives the proceedings a “Burn After Reading” flair.
But mostly, Gleeson kicks the program to life. Strictly as an impression, his performance is mixed. Gleeson, who is Irish, slips occasionally on the accent. But his rendering of Trump’s wandering diction is the best I’ve seen outside a lip-sync. Half his performance is in his bearing, chin jutted forward like the prow of a swollen yacht.
More important, Gleeson has a thorough idea of his character. His Trump is not the orange-haired clown prince of “S.N.L.” and late-night talk shows. He’s a crass, heavy-breathing mobster (Comey’s comparison, and Gleeson makes the likeness vivid) driven by spite and vanity. A heavy-handed musical score portends menace whenever he turns up.
He, too, is concerned with appearances, but in a more literal way than Comey. His version of “good morning” is “I saw you on TV”; he and his staffers keep referencing his “eye for interior design.” His brassy presence in the halls of power is as much an aesthetic statement as a political one, which Ray underlines by showing a White House staffer serving him a Filet-O-Fish sandwich on a gleaming silver platter.
All the while, it gradually settles on Comey that his new boss may not be an entirely scrupulous man. Their White House dinner — the “honest loyalty” scene, for Comey buffs — takes only a few minutes, but you could imagine it as an entire movie, “Frost/Nixon” style.
It’s like an uncomfortable date with a persistent suitor. Trump, cleaning out his ice-cream dish, pushes and prods on the Russia investigation, pressing his advances. A pained Comey guards and parries, finding ways to say things that resemble what the president wants to hear.
Comey survives that battle but loses the war. “The Comey Rule” is not out to damn him. It strains itself to sympathize with his falling into one impossible position after another, and it suggests that public life might be better if everyone in it were like James Comey.
But it also shows how catastrophically inadequate he was to a world in which not everyone is like James Comey. He becomes a stand-in for an entire class of Trump-era elites who believe that respect for norms will save them. (The president “can’t fire me,” Comey tells an associate. “It’d look horrible.”)
As for Donald Trump, he’s not precisely the villain, in the show’s view. As “The Comey Rule” depicts him, he’s a creature, an appetite. He is what he is. He doesn’t know how to be otherwise.
Comey, on the other hand, is, if not a villain, then a tragic, hubristic dupe, precisely because he believes he knows better, and because he should.
“The Comey Rule” is not good drama; it’s clunky, self-serious and melodramatic. But it makes an unsparing point amid our own election season.
It says that anyone, like its subject, who complacently assumed in 2015 and 2016 that everyone would be fine, who thought that propriety and rules could constrain forces that care about neither, who worried more about appearances than consequences, was a fool.
Then it leaves you to sit with the question: What does that make anyone who still believes that today?