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Review roundup: Showtime’s ‘The Comey Rule’ presents a false hero and a horror movie villain

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Hollywood is inexplicably obsessed with mythologizing the Trump presidency.

Maybe it’s because we knew him as a TV personality long before he was anything else, and because Hollywood loves adapting American history with old-fashioned heroes and villains and a heaping dose of star power. But the difference between making a TV show about Abraham Lincoln and one about Donald Trump — apart from almost everything about those men — is that the latter is still enacting history on a daily basis. 

He’s passing laws, appointing Supreme Court Justices, undermining every American institution he can lay his tiny hands on, and we are not viewing those events with any hindsight or distance, but with a disbelief that is unique to the present moment. Living through history, it turns out, is a lot less fun than watching the TV version of it. Nevertheless, Hollywood persists.

Enter Showtime’s The Comey Rule, a two-part miniseries that is the latest attempt from show business to Say Something about our Political Moment without offering anything new besides a different actor under the Trump wig. In anticipation of the Sunday premiere, check out what critics are saying about The Comey Rule, based on the eponymous former FBI director’s memoir and adapted by Billy Ray.

The sanctification of James Comey

Sam Thielman, NBC News

Ray has tried to craft a film about a great man’s downfall, but there are no great men in this tale. Lacking any, he had to grant both Comey and President Donald Trump the grand stature neither deserved but is necessary to the project, to make the movie’s hero and his nemesis seem important and not silly. He’s betrayed from the outset by his source material: What makes a tragedy a tragedy is that the protagonist, though flawed, suffers more than he should. Comey has not suffered more than he should; he lost a job after a series of totally avoidable bad acts that cost the rest of us dearly, and then Showtime acquired his corny tell-all and hired Jeff Daniels to play him.

James Poniewozik, The New York Times

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.

Laura Miller, Slate

Ray doesn’t pay enough attention to the view of many who have known him that moral vanity plays a role in Comey’s character and behavior—beyond having Daniels offer a brief and not very persuasive confession that he can be “self-righteous.” But that doesn’t seem to matter much in the world of the first half of The Comey Rule. Sure, it might make Comey irritating to those he works with (and Rosenstein’s complaints about Comey are later revealed to be petty and envy-driven), but how can too much integrity be a fault in a public servant?

Alex McLevy, The A.V. Club

This is the problem with The Comey Rule: It disguises itself as a balanced look at the events surrounding Comey’s investigation into the Hillary Clinton email scandal, its possible role in the 2016 election of Donald Trump, and the subsequent fallout and eventual dismissal of Comey from his position, when it’s anything but. This story is directly taken from Comey’s memoir, A Higher Loyalty, which obviously presents the narrative with maximum sympathy toward poor James Comey. By the end of this two-part limited series, you half-expect the former public official to climb up on a cross and nail himself to it, smiling beatifically all the while.

Daniel D’Addario, Variety

Daniels’s Comey prides himself on being practically post-human, a creature governed by his supercilious awareness that he is in the right. The movie bends and strains to accommodate Comey’s showy displays of duty and righteousness, such that by the time he meets Trump, Comey has had anything about him that we might grip onto sandblasted away by honor. What might have been a human tragedy about a man whose belief in the purity of institutions led to those same institutions’ coming apart under a tyrant is, instead, largely a fable about a hero.

Another actor adds Trump to his resume

Sam Thielman, NBC News

Gleeson doesn’t look or bother to look much like Trump, but he does have the aggrieved rambling down pat. For about an hour after he trudges into the frame, “The Comey Rule” is both impossible to watch and impossible to look away from… Trump — unacknowledged and dominant as a fart — sitting hunched over in the middle of the room, mumbling about ratings and whores. It’s a performance to make the flesh crawl, and Ray gets us every lip-smack and sniff.

Daniel Fienberg, The Hollywood Reporter

With squinting, sneering, sniffling intensity, Gleeson plays Trump as a clever and calculating bully of weaker men, blindly obtuse one second and acutely manipulative the next. He’s a lumbering, land-bound, poorly dressed manatee of a man, but to be underestimated at your own peril. Gleeson’s accent and intonations waver, yet he captures an interiority the real Trump rarely exposes. It’s a mediocre impression and possibly a great performance.

Alex McLevy, The A.V. Club

Gleeson does a better job than anyone has yet of finding a sort of horrific humanity inside the man. Wisely, he underplays Trump, making him more a weary solipsist than ranting buffoon, with a lived-in sense of lazy entitlement that feels honest and unsettlingly true. It takes a while to get past the strange not-quite-resemblance of the two men, but after the initial weirdness of it wears off, Gleeson’s performance starts to feel downright revelatory, as though he uncovered the Rosetta Stone to Trump’s soul, or lack thereof.

Making current events into history

James Poniewozik, The New York Times

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.)

Nell Minow, RogerEbert.com

This Washington story does not have as satisfying a conclusion, at least not yet, perhaps because we are still in the middle of it. Some incidents depicted here have been overtaken by far more momentous events, including the impeachment proceedings and criminal convictions or guilty pleas involving a number of Trump associates. 

This retelling, based on the experiences of one person whose tenure in the Trump administration was under five months, is too focused on the trees instead of the forest for even this hard-core Washington lawyer and policy wonk. 

Laura Miller, Slate

It’s not the most entertaining material (and it illustrates why Aaron Sorkin, when covering similar ground, had his actors talk so fast), but it’s not meant to be. In the perverse context of 2020, the unexciting vision of the federal government functioning as it’s supposed to, with a punctiliousness that can only be called bureaucratic, is strangely soothing.

Kristen Baldwin, Entertainment Weekly

For the pro-Trump crowd, The Comey Rule is destined to be dismissed as more #FakeNews from liberal Hollyweirdos. For everyone else, it offers the uniquely punishing experience of repeating history even as we continue to live through it.

Daniel D’Addario, Variety

In Trump, Comey found someone whose blind avarice provided a mirror image to his rigid insistence upon protocol; that neither party would bend made it inevitable that one would get snapped. But this series fails to find anything provocative or narratively rich in Comey’s dismissal from government, in part because we at home know the man never really went away.

Overall thoughts

James Poniewozik, The New York Times

“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.

Sam Thielman, NBC News

“The Comey Rule”… could have reached less for Shakespeare and more for Harold Pinter, with an appropriate lack of respect for people who bit and scratched their way to the pinnacles of power. But Ray isn’t Pinter and “The Comey Rule” isn’t a tragedy. It’s just kind of pitiful, and its pity is wasted on the wrong people.

Laura Miller, Slate

The miniseries ends in an off-putting orgy of Comey hagiography, reuniting its hero with his wholesome family and leaving Rosenstein floating the prospect of wearing a wire to White House meetings and raving, “It’s so crazy in there!” But however credulous Ray is about Comey, the larger truth of The Comey Rule is incontestable. It’s the story of institutions run in accordance with norms and traditions that seem permanent but prove terrifyingly fragile. Comey gets out, but the rest of us are still living in the sequel.

Kristen Baldwin, Entertainment Weekly

Ray portrays [Rod Rosenstein] almost like the Salieri to Comey’s Mozart. He resents Comey’s success, his easy rapport with underlings, the devotion he inspires in his team. But his assertions that Comey is a phony, a guy driven by ego over duty — they exist in a vacuum, leaving us to draw whatever conclusions we drew years ago.

Daniel Fienberg, The Hollywood Reporter

Those seeking confirmation that Comey is a villain, either for torpedoing Hillary Clinton in the lead-up to the 2016 election or complicating Trump’s early tenure with the Steele dossier or other Russian inquiries, will find it. Ditto anybody who chooses to view Comey as a paragon of the ideals of service, however self-destructive.

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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