Great villains usually make for good movies, and Matt Tyrnauer certainly has a doozy in Roy Cohn. The source of much American mischief, nay, evil across the second half of the 20th century and well into the current one can be traced back to this one man, in the view of the prolific documentarian. Cohn would have relished the verdict. From Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon to John Gotti and Donald Trump, Cohn promoted, defended and enabled the careers of many powerful men who have altered American life in decidedly negative ways, and Where’s My Roy Cohn? provides a ringside seat to the ruthless and brilliant fashion Cohn navigated his career, with a cardinal rule being to deny and attack. This endlessly fascinating and appalling story will find homes wherever expert dirt-digging is appreciated.
As he has before on such first-rate documentaries as Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood and Studio 54, Tyrnauer focuses on a figure of whom there is a treasure trove of archival audio-visual material, beginning with the U.S. Senate’s Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954. “You knew you were in the presence of evil,” one acquaintance testifies, and others join in the chorus: He was “a political puppeteer,” “like a caged animal,” “a hired gun,” and this is just the appetizer.
Cohn looked reptilian, beginning with his cold, pale blue eyes, and Tyrnauer has the guts and wit to attribute this to Cohn’s mother Dora, who was reputedly so homely that Al Cohn was offered a judgeship if he would marry her. Fortunately, the doc suggests, the couple had only one child, but he was more than enough; the funny-looking boy was supremely intelligent and was raised like a prince who could do no wrong, an opinion he inherited.
So smart was Cohn that he graduated from law school at 20, too young to be admitted to the bar. Soon after, he joined with some other Jews keen to assert their patriotism in vigorously prosecuting Julius and Ethel Rosenberg all the way to the electric chair. He then became nationally known as Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s legal aide during the televised Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954, habitually leaning in to whisper in the commie-hunting politician’s ear.
Although disgraced, Cohn was just getting started. Throughout his august legal career, “everything was transactional,” according to one of the many associates, witnesses and friends assembled by Tyrnauer to tell Cohn’s tale. A significant section of the doc is devoted to Cohn’s vital connection with the Trump family, beginning with Fred, and the eventual close role he played in the career of son Donald, whom he came to see as a protege and, in Tyrnauer’s view, the greatest example of Cohn’s negative influence on the country — even if Cohn didn’t live to witness his crowning achievement. Special attention is paid to the appalling corruption connected with the construction of Trump Tower, from the shady appropriation of the Fifth Avenue location to how many laborers weren’t even paid.
As Cohn was a celebrity always in the news and on the scene, the film is filled with footage that illustrates his social prominence. He was a regular at Studio 54, which provides a convenient connection to Cohn’s sex life, which evidently was quite active. He always denied the gay rumors, but Tyrnauer has gotten first-hand testimony not only to the contrary but even regarding his preferences and habits. Even on his deathbed, Cohn denied he had AIDS.
So consistently odious, diabolical and simply anti-humane is Cohn’s lifetime portfolio that you really feel the need of a cold shower afterwards. But this kind of dark brilliance is always fascinating, and the doc is able to trade on this all the way through. You can’t believe he could get away with it all and you want to bash him on the head or at least disbar him (which eventually happened), but it’s impossible to look away and he always pulls you back in. It was Cohn’s trick, and it works for the film in spades.
Production companies: Altimeter Films, WaveLength Productions
Director: Matt Tyrnauer
Producers: Matt Tyrnauer, Corey Reeser, Marie Brenner, Joyce Deep, Andrea Lewis
Executive producers: Jenifer Westphal, Joe Plummer, Lyn Lear, John Boccardo, Ernest H. Pomerantz, Lynn Pincus, Elliott Sernel
Editors: Andrea Lewis, Tom Maroney
Music: Lorne Balfe
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)