'Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn': Film Review | NYFF 2019

Magnolia Pictures
Compelling, if a bit scattershot.

Ivy Meeropol's documentary chronicles the life and career of the notorious lawyer who helped send her grandparents Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to the electric chair.

Sad to say, but Roy Cohn seems to be having a moment.

Arriving shortly after the theatrical release of Matt Tyrnauer's Where's My Roy Cohn?, Ivy Meeropol's documentary Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn delivers a rather more personal portrait of the infamous lawyer whose name has been much bandied about in recent years thanks to his past connection to our current president. Meeropol has a more than casual relationship to her subject; her grandparents Julius and Ethel Rosenberg went to the electric chair thanks in no small part to Cohn's machinations. But while that personal connection lends an undeniably poignant aspect, the film never quite fully captures the essence of the enigmatic legal and political fixer. Receiving its world premiere at the New York Film Festival, the doc will be broadcast by HBO sometime next year.

In case you're wondering about the awkward title, it stems from the epitaph stitched on Cohn's unlikely inclusion in the AIDS Memorial Quilt. In one of the film's more moving moments, Meeropol and her father Michael recall how when they first went to see the quilt, they approached it from a randomly chosen direction. The first panel they encountered was one remembering the man who had caused their family so much anguish.

The documentary veers uneasily from intimate moments — including home movie footage of a very young Meeropol being told her grandparents' story by her father, and a scene in which they visit Sing Sing, the prison where the Rosenbergs were executed ­— and a more straightforward retelling of Cohn's story. The latter inevitably feels familiar, incorporating much of the archival footage already seen in Tyrnauer's film, including Cohn's television interviews with Larry King and Mike Wallace, among others. There's also a clip of Tom Snyder asking Cohn what his clients think they're getting by enlisting his services. "Scare value," Cohn astutely replies.

The film dutifully, if sketchily, chronicles Cohn's decades-long career, including his work for Joseph McCarthy, his later emergence as a New York City-based power broker, and, of course, his personal and professional relationship with Donald Trump. But it's more interesting when it delves into Cohn's (barely) closeted gay life, benefiting from interviews from several close friends, relatives and associates, including a male prostitute who amusingly likens him to "an old auntie" and gossip columnist Cindy Adams, who dutifully reported such falsehoods as Cohn's "engagement" to Barbara Walters. "Of course, I knew," Adams says about Cohn's sexuality. "We all knew." 

We also hear from playwright Tony Kushner, who made Cohn a character in his magnum opus Angels in America, and Nathan Lane, who won a Tony Award for his portrayal of Cohn in a 2018 Broadway revival of the Pulitzer- and Tony Award-winning play. But while their observations are interesting, their presence in the film (and the clips from the production) seem more redolent of star power than insightful historical commentary. The same is true of the appearance by filmmaker John Waters, whose main connection to Cohn was that they used to hang out at the same watering holes during summers in Provincetown, Massachusetts. "I was appalled he was here!" Waters seethes. We also hear from the woman who rented Cohn a cottage there, and actually managed to resist his forceful request to purchase it.

Meeropol, who previously chronicled her grandparents' story in her 2004 documentary Heir to an Execution, cursorily reexamines the case here. She interviews Alan Dershowitz, a friend of Cohn's (naturally), who says, "He never denied that the case was fixed. He told me, 'We framed guilty people.'" Michel Meeropol, not surprisingly, has a different opinion about their guilt, or at least Ethel's. "It was clear that your grandmother was not a spy…she never got a code name," he insists.

Despite its structural flaws, the documentary nonetheless frequently proves compelling. After all, how could it not, considering the malevolent but undeniably charismatic figure at its center? Just staring into Cohn's cold, dead eyes as he lies continually, whether about his business dealings, clients or his sexuality, lends one to subscribe to the explanation offered in the film by his cousin, David Lloyd Marcus. "He was the personification of evil," Marcus says about the man who seems likely to haunt our collective nightmares for years to come.

Production company: Motto Pictures, Red 50
Distributor: HBO Documentary
Director: Ivy Meeropol
Producers: Ivy Meeropol, Julie Goldman, Christopher Clements, Carolyn Hepburn
Executive producers: Nancy Abraham, Lisa Heller
Director of photography: Daniel B. Gold
Editors: Anne Alvergue, Adam Kurnitz
Composers: Nathan Halpern, Chris Ruggiero
Venue: New York Film Festival

98 minutes