The Brutal Seriousness of Brendan Gleeson’s Trump in “The Comey Rule”

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Americans have become downright exhausted of this president. The endless drama of the last five years of American life, Trump’s dogged, relentless obsession to be at the center of every conversation every person is having every single day, is a wave that appears to have crested in the last week. Politico reporter Tim Alberta captured it well:

It’s impossible to quantify how tired Americans are of this presidency. … They feel trapped inside a reality TV show and are powerless to change the channel. They want a break, even if they don’t want a new program. … weary of their social media feeds and kitchen table conversations being dominated by Trump, voters may resent that he turned a sympathetic situation into yet another showcase of administrative incompetence and self-celebrating bravado.

Alberta is breaking down Trump’s political prospects, but that’s less interesting, particularly now that it increasingly looks like he may be toast. Trump, especially in what appears to be his final stages in office, resembles less a president than an aging and desperate starlet who once enraptured audiences but now performs on his own private stage, for only himself. Unfortunately, that stage is the Oval Office, which is making all of us feel less like American citizens than inmates locked inside the asylum with him: It’s an Escape Room with a desperate madman who will not … stop … talking.

This is a difficult sensation to describe, not just because Trump has already been so omnipresent for five years but because he’s so inherently, viscerally ridiculous. We know he’s dangerous, we know how many people he has hurt, we know how incompetent his administration has been, but it’s still difficult to wrap your mind around all of it because he’s such a cartoon. The hair, the skin, the obvious lack of curiosity about anything outside of himself, the constant bullshittery … he’s so difficult to take seriously as a human being that it’s impossible to imagine anyone taking him seriously as a boss. Who would follow this preening, pouting lout?

As often happens, it requires the arts to illuminate our reality. And I don’t think I’ve ever understood Trump better — or, specifically, what it’s like to have to deal with Trump better — than I did after watching “The Comey Rule,” the two-part series that debuted on Showtime last week.

The series itself is … fine. It’s talky and occasionally a bit obvious, but writer-director Billy Ray has a sharp, focused wit (his Shattered Glass is one of the best movies about journalism ever) and its heart, or more specifically its outrage, is in the right place. Part One is entirely about James Comey’s anguish, ably played with self-righteous stiffness by Jeff Daniels, of running the FBI during the cursed 2016 presidential race; Donald Trump is often spoken of, but never seen. It’s in Part Two that Trump takes over. And it’s Brendan Gleeson who has the goods.

Gleeson has long been one of our most respected actors. He’s most widely known for playing “Mad-Eye Moody” in the Harry Potter movies, though among film nerds, he’s probably most beloved for In Bruges and 28 Days Later. (He’s also pretty wonderful in Paddington 2 as a character named “Knuckles McGinty.”) He often plays gruff, imposing men, usually with soft hearts underneath. There is always a light of intelligence in his eyes, a deep inner life that’s hidden but evident.

What’s most remarkable about his Trump, though, is that he has shut off that light. He has superficial physical similarities to Trump, but he is not doing an impression. What he does is use actorly technique to find the soul underneath his character only to discover that … there’s nothing there. Gleeson’s Trump is just a loud, braying, utterly insufferable and completely unstoppable force of nature, a man driven by only one thing: His need to dominate and humiliate. Gleeson does not explore the reasons behind this: There are no soliloquies as he stares out the window and laments his unforgiving father and miserable childhood. His Trump is simply a bull whose superpower is caring not one single whit about anything but himself. The whole second half of the film consists of normal, sane people of every political persuasion running into him and being utterly flabbergasted by the fact that this person could possibly exist, let alone be the leader of the free world. Gleeson plays him with the instincts of a wild animal.

It would seem impossible, but Gleeson and Ray, by framing Trump as someone other people have to deal with—rather than a person we all just sit and stare at every day—have shed light on a man I would have thought no more light could be shed on. Gleeson makes Trump make sense. He is not driven by ideology, or lust, or greed, or money. All he wants to do is destroy and devour everything in his path. The performance reminded me, in a strange way, of Heath Ledger as The Joker. Trump’s Gleeson doesn’t want anything: He just wants to see what happens when the world burns. There’s no plan. There is no second level: There’s barely a first level.

The mistake many other actors, most notably Alec Baldwin, have made with Trump is that they’ve tried to make him funny, or to ridicule him. I understand the impulse: He’s a completely absurd human being. But there is nothing funny about Gleeson’s Trump. He’s just a wrecking ball to everything that’s in his path, and plenty that isn’t. Why does he do it? Gleeson and Ray argue that the why doesn’t matter much. All that matters is that he does it. It’s the rest of us who have to deal with the ramifications of him, who have to clean up the wreckage he leaves in his wake. Every character in “The Comey Rule” tries to figure out how to navigate around him, to not be dragged under by him, to survive him. Every one of them fails. We all now know the feeling.

Will Leitch will be writing multiple pieces a week for Medium. He lives in Athens, Georgia, with his family, and is the author of five books, including the upcoming novel “How Lucky,” released by Harper next May. He also writes a free weekly newsletter that you might enjoy.

Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021.

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