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Rise of the Tactless Manipulator: Where’s My Roy Cohn?

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By Elias Savada.

I wonder if lawyer jokes were invented for Roy M. Cohn, the notorious attorney at the center of this perfectly timed documentary about the man who spent decades causing mayhem in the legal profession and creating turmoil for many who crossed his path during the last half of the 20th century. I also suspect, based on the wealth of testimony in Matt Tyrnauer mesmerizing examination of this Machiavellian pug, that Cohn would sue any jokester who poked fun at him. And win.

Cohn’s hit list reads like a Looney Tunes Who’s Who, with Cohn taking the Wile E. Coyote role: Communists (as chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s hearings), Spies (as the prosecutor who brought the death penalty to Ethel and Julius Rosenberg), Family (taking over his uncle’s Lionel Train business and crashing its finances), Homosexuality (closeted during the 1954 McCarthy-Army hearing that suggested he was involved with G. David Schine, who later married the 1955 Miss Universe winner), Politicians and Celebrities (speaking of Miss Universe, his clients included Donald Trump, Yankees owner Georg Steinbrenner, Mafia chieftains Carmine Galante and John Gotti, and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York).

The film spans almost three linear decades in Cohn’s life, particularly from 1951 onward, until his death from complications AIDS in 1986.

A large number of very outgoing talking heads, including family, fellow attorneys, historians, columnists, and lovers parade through the production that’s sprinkled with plenty of stunning archival photos, tv and newsreel footage. The highlights escalate through the third act (relating to Donald Trump), as the drumbeat of the heavy handed score by Lorne Balfe pushes the angst from one extreme to the next. The filmmaker piles on one crazy anecdote after another. (I suspect that happens in Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn, an HBO Documentary presentation directed by Ivy Meeropol—granddaughter of the Rosenbergs) just presented at the New York Film Festival).

Even when he’s attacked and indicted for any number of crimes, one of the talking heads comments that “he actually enjoyed being indicted because it gave him a platform for attack.” Hmm, that sounds like an awfully familiar mantra these days. And, like the current occupant of the White House, Cohn managed to constantly squirm out of various troubles by pulling legal magic out of his hat. He was a snake oil salesman, a Teflon fraud, a God-Bless-America flag lover, and a very smart lawyer, with a terrific ability to manipulate the press.

You can learn about all this in countless books and articles about the man. What director Tyrnauer (Valentino: The Last Emperor and Citizen Jane|Battle for the City) does is get the various Cohn family members to talk about the reasons the attorney ended up being the kind of person he became. It was sparked by the failure of a bank during the Great Depression run by his uncle, Bernard Marcus, who ended up in Sing Sing. The whole family suffered by association. The social shame affected the Cohns, especially a very young Roy.

As the headlines constantly flash across the screen (and Cohn knew how to create those, too!) and the tempo races forward to cram every bit of detritus that the man produced, you’re left shaking your head that this man was able to climb to the top of the New York social ladder and bear responsibility, in part, for mis-shaping the moral fiber of the country.

As for the Trump connection, the film waits until the last half hour to delve into that. It’s through Trump, Sr., who’s deeply “mobbed up” according to journalist David Cay Johnston. The young Donald reaches out to Cohn,  the consigliere for the Gambino and Genovese families, for help with a civil rights case. Here you’ll find Cohn on camera, talking about how he hooked up with the businessman in the 1970s. Also chiming in here is none other than Mr. Shameless himself, Roger Stone, the dirty trickster featured in his own Netflix documentary Get Me Roger Stone. Mr. Trump’s remarks about Stone and Cohn have bearing on why these documentaries are so titled.

As the President’s travails escalate with the impeachment investigation, I’m sure he’s despondent that Roy Cohn isn’t alive to help his case. We all know that Rudy Giuliani is no Roy Cohn. Cohn’s crazy fighting instincts do haunt the President’s every decision, especially to the point that neither one ever apologized. Both are legends in their own minds.

Matt Tyrnauer’s explosive look at Cohn is a head banger. Loud and in-your-face, it brings to life of an attorney that shaped many aspects of our country’s leadership (he also helped get Reagan elected) in the second half of the 20th century. Where’s My Roy Cohn? could be a soap opera if it wasn’t so real.

Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2019 by Centipede Press).

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