By Michael Sandlin.
Since 2016, documentaries about influential far-right sociopaths have been on the uptick, having become almost an industry within an industry: Roger Stone, Roger Ailes, Steve Bannon, and Donald Trump have all been subjects of this recent outburst of nonfictional cinematic activism. All of the aforementioned far-right figures have contributed in some way to the WWF-style political culture of bluster and spectacle we find ourselves stuck with in the early 21st century. So it’s fitting then that in former Vanity Fair editor Matt Tyrnauer’s Where’s My Roy Cohn? we now have a proper documentary about the undisputed godfather of modern American slimeball politics: disgraced lawyer and all-around guttersnipe grifter Roy Cohn. Tyrnauer’s film serves as an unsettling reminder that Cohn’s filthy fingerprints still besmudge America’s increasingly dysfunctional democracy.
The only previous feature-length attempt to deal with Cohn’s life in film was the 1992 Frank Pierson-directed HBO production Citizen Cohn, which starred, appropriately, avid right-winger James Woods. Woods brought a certain manic – almost orgasmic – intensity to the part (he was perhaps a bit too comfortable in the role). Woods’s portrayal also served to physically glamorize the young Cohn, despite the real Cohn having been beaten at birth with the proverbial ugly stick – his standout features being drooping eyelid syndrome and a malformed prizefighter nose. While the film mostly adhered to the same facts as Tyrnauer’s documentary is based on, there was the added bonus of hallucinatory deathbed sequences where we’re privy to Cohn being haunted by the ghosts of his past, namely Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. As a Department of Justice prosecutor, in 1951 the twenty-something Cohn saw to it that the Rosenbergs were roasted to death for “espionage” despite evidence tampering and unreliable witnesses.
As a political and legal operative, Cohn was driven by pure pathological self-aggrandizement. His example would serve as inspiration for young up-and-coming sleazebags like Donald Trump, who would infamously retain Cohn’s legal services in the 1970s. Budding slumlord Trump was challenged by judges in NYC for violating the Fair Housing Act (i.e., preventing African Americans from renting his properties) and lost his case, despite Cohn’s reputation as a dependable winner. In fact, Tyrnauer’s film stands as strong audiovisual confirmation that Tweeter-in-chief Trump’s entire modus operandi is cribbed from Cohn’s playbook: everything from the publicity tactic of never apologizing and never admitting defeat, to an obsession with maintaining an embarrassingly bad tan.
Tyrnauer doesn’t have to do much to effectively make his case for Cohn being a repulsive amoral monster. He simply puts Cohn’s criminal curriculum vitae on display in easy-to-follow chronological order: from his integral part in sending the Rosenbergs to their deaths, to his influential sidekick role in the discredited McCarthy hearings, up to his professional association with the Mob (including John Gotti), Trump, and Rupert Murdoch. Tyrnauer presents Cohn’s so-called “anti-establishment” vision of personal success as shockingly banal – and about as traditionally “establishment” as one can imagine. Like his protégée Trump, Cohn was a pampered New York rich kid who mythologized himself as a populist underdog rebelling against the system—partly as a way of escaping an ultra-privileged past. The documentary confirms what most thinking people will suspect: that Cohn’s overzealous anti-Communist shenanigans were not rooted in love of country but were all about the rapid accumulation of social capital (which, of course, eventually led to other forms of capital). In other words, he wanted to be accepted by the WASP elite who ruled Manhattan high society. And for his efforts, he did eventually get invited to all the right pretty-people parties.
Right-wing snowflakes will no doubt accuse director Tyrnauer of orchestrating a liberal-biased talking-head dogpile on the now defenseless, long-deceased Cohn. But the cast of commentators assembled here consists mainly of either former Cohn coworkers, surviving family members, or Cohn wannabes (i.e., the recently indicted Roger Stone) – not exactly a partisan hit-job. Yet the closest thing to praise anyone interviewed in the film can manage is that Cohn was an evil genius. True, he excelled at stealing and running businesses into the ground; he was fabulous at lying to journalists, judges, coworkers, and pretty much everyone else in his professional ambit. Other Cohn résumé highlights, as we learn, include illegally collecting insurance money on a yacht that burned up (and a crew member died), stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from his clients, and forging documents. He was so good, in fact, at wrongdoing that he was eventually disbarred in 1986, just before he mercifully shuffled off to the hottest martini party in Hell.
As the film makes clear, Cohn was nothing if not a tightly wound ball of contradictions: for starters, he was an anti-Semitic Jew, as well as a self-hating homosexual who was publicly ashamed of his proactively gay lifestyle. Even on his deathbed he refused to acknowledge that he had contracted AIDS. Yet in addition to helping orchestrate showboat Communist witch hunts, Cohn was also happy to help Joe McCarthy expose alleged homosexuals working in the US government and trash their careers. Cohn also loved to use phony patriotism to further his own personal agendas, constantly publicizing his love for America while routinely flouting its laws and trashing its Constitution.
But one potentially contradictory aspect of the mythos surrounding Cohn that Tyrnauer’s film fails to adequately unpack is this bandied-about notion of Cohn’s brilliance and legal acumen: one has to wonder, if Cohn was so damn clever why couldn’t he achieve fame and success within the limits of the law? Was always being on the wrong side of the law really just cynical contrarian sport for Cohn, or was his unrepentant criminality more a compensatory crutch for a deeper-seated intellectual inferiority complex? Apart from minor unanswered questions like these, Where’s My Roy Cohn? succeeds handsomely in finally treating Cohn’s legacy of dirty deeds with the un-romanticized, nonfictional scrutiny it deserves.
Michael Sandlin‘s work has appeared in Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, Film Quarterly, Bookforum, Los Angeles Review of Books, and the cinema trade publication Video Librarian.