The title of Matt Tyrnauer’s stone-the-bastard documentary about the corrupt lawyer, attack dog and inhuman being who everyone loved to hate comes from Donald Trump. “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” the President reportedly shouted in frustration when his attorney general Jeff Sessions dared to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Cohn died in 1986, leaving Trump without the mentor and fixer who helped make him the Donald what he is today. Enough said.
Or so you’d think . But in tracing the origins of a monster, Tyrnauer, known for docu-profiles like Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, Valentino: The Last Emperor, and Studio 54 (in which Cohn was prominently featured), comes out swinging. We’re shown the legal eagle pushing hard for the execution of accused spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and making his name in the process. He then passes the pitchfork to Senator Joseph McCarthy and acts as his right-hand man during the Hollywood witch-hunt against commie infiltrators. And there’s the closeted Cohn railing against gays in the army and federal jobs, denying his own homosexuality even while having daily sex with men and eventually dying of complications from AIDS. Tony Kushner wrote Cohn into his prize-winning Angels In America (curiously not mentioned here) in a bristling portrait of a man at war with himself.
Don’t we know all this? Maybe. But Tyrnauer ties the elements together in a way that creates a ferocious, fast-paced account of a real-life supervillain. Sure, Cohn’s brilliance was indisputable. As the only child of well-off Jewish parents, this frog-like prodigy never morphed into the adult prince of his doting mother’s dreams. But he was always a dozen steps ahead of his enemies, using the cloak of patriotism to disguise his hypocrisy.
The film uses TV clips, newsreels, interviews with friends, enemies, cousins, journalists (Ken Auletta, Liz Smith) and even rarely on-the-record Republican political strategist Roger Stone to get to the bottom of this complicated man. But it’s Roy himself who creates the most vivid impression, his charisma in stark contrast to his admitted lack of empathy. Though Cohn had a hand in image building for Presidents (Ronald Reagan) and mafia royalty (John Gotti), he was most expert at burnishing his own ego. Caught in a lie, he’d quickly deny it in his loudest voice. Cohn wasn’t disbarred for his frequent ethical breaches until shortly before his death. He knew how to pressure the media by providing dirt on bigger fish. His influence on the young Donald Trump was incalculable.
Tyrnauer’s flashes of compassion for this self-hating Jew and homosexual — taught from childhood to feel ashamed of what he was and who he was — remind us that his subject’s toxic, insidious amorality did not go to the grave with him. It’s all around us, among opportunists still looking for their own Roy Cohn — just one of several reasons why Tyrnauer’s doc hits you like a punch in the gut.