REVIEW: Where’s My Roy Cohn? [2019]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 97 minutes
    Release Date: September 20th, 2019 (USA)
    Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
    Director(s): Matt Tyrnauer

A love of a good fight.

The documentary about the man who one interviewee calls “The Teflon Fraud” starts and ends with another: Donald Trump. A close personal friend of Roy M. Cohn‘s as well as a client/protégée, the real estate magnate’s ascent from reality television host to President of the United States is easily attributed to the cutthroat and disingenuous tactics learned from his New York City lawyer. So when Trump encountered one of many 2018 reports shining him and his administration in a criminal light they’ve done well to deserve, he flippantly wondered aloud—without a shred of subtlety—what became the title of Matt Tyrnauer‘s film: Where’s My Roy Cohn? Where was the man who used to have his back? And where is Trump now as the opportunity for on-screen reciprocation arrives?

Answer One is simple. “Dead.” Cohn died three decades ago in 1986 from AIDS complications despite vehemently refusing to admit he had the disease. Answer Two is obvious as well since the same thing happened when Cohn was disbarred shortly before his death. All the friends accumulated during his rise to power from Joseph McCarthy’s chief aide during the “Red Scare” to heavy-hitting defense attorney for organized crime bosses saw that he’d finally lost the one thing he had to offer (a formidable presence in the courtroom) and bailed. You could say Trump has more important things to do now (tweeting dog-whistles to his deranged sycophantic cult), but Tyrnauer doesn’t miss the chance to call this abandonment out at credits’ end with a “didn’t respond to interview requests.”

Who did respond? Many people spanning the likes of press members who reported on Cohn, friends like another Trump ally Roger Stone, former law partners, and a few cousins with the wherewithal and clarity to acknowledge what Roy was. Stone is the only one on the list who has a true affinity for what the film’s subject did, but even he isn’t mincing words as far as the ways in which Cohn got what he wanted. The difference is that he states those facts with relish and respect while colleagues and family relay them with disappointment. The emotional reactions that come through these stories are what resonate because those for and against what Roy did each agree he was unscrupulously amoral. That’s precisely why his champions loved him.

Tyrnauer dives into Cohn’s career by exposing where he came from, why his strategy worked, and how his legacy remains prevalent today. It’s in some ways a cautionary tale for parents who dote on their children with effusive praise that insulates them from the nuances of the real world. Pair that with wealth (the cousins describe just how many companies were in the family and how entrenched their parents were in the corrupt environment of aristocratic quid pro quos) and you’ve created a man who refuses to believe he’s wrong. Every truth spoken about him is therefore spun as slander with a smirk. He’s always playing a game wherein the rules don’t apply. And his never going to jail proves how effective words can be in defeating justice.

More interesting than Trump’s absence, however, is that of Barbara Walters—a figure mentioned often as a friend who willfully ignored how dangerous Cohn was. That happens when what your work stands for comes in opposition to who you are. Theirs is a world of currency both economic and political. It’s about leveraging your voice and ferocity to impact those making the decisions rather than the infrastructures those people are supposed to be following. It’s no coincidence then that Cohn’s success coincided with the proliferation of TV news and exposure. He used journalists as vessels to speak to those who needed his help and those he needed to fear him. He appealed to the easily manipulated by becoming synonymous with “America” and making his fight theirs. Sound familiar?

But he was also a self-hating Jew who led the call for executing the Rosenbergs during the Cold War. And he was a self-hating gay man (a former boyfriend is included in Tyrnauer’s stable of interviewees) who helped prosecute a homosexual witch-hunt that partially stemmed from his attempts to trade power for a presumed lover’s freedom from a draft ticket. Those on-screen often explain how much of a contradiction Cohn was because that’s the best way to describe him. He intentionally did things and said things that didn’t overlap because he was living two lives that could at times ruin his success in the other. We soon discover Roy might have also been an extortionist, perjurer, and murderer depending on whom you talk to and what you believe.

Regardless of whether you think he was a man of integrity (I’m looking at you GOP) or the reason authoritarians have risen to power in America, Where’s My Roy Cohn? proves objectively entertaining because Cohn was himself an entertainer. Tyrnauer’s journalism background assures he’s the perfect filmmaker to lay it all out too with the same tools and archival footage aesthetic utilized with Citizen Jane: Battle for the City and to a lesser extent (because his subject was alive and participating) Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood. In the end this is a story about an infamous man told by those who knew him best and behind the scenes. It’s not bias if it’s true and Stone’s involvement goes a long way towards confirming every last detail.

[1] Left to Right: Joseph McCarthy, Roy Cohn. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics
[2] Left to Right: Halston, Roy Cohn, Steve Rubell. Photo by Allan Tannenbaum. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics
[3] Left to Right: Roy Cohn, Donald Trump. Photo by Sonia Moskowitz. Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

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