Roy Cohn tells an interviewer his legacy is inextricably linked to the Army-McCarthy hearings, but it’s impossible to watch “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” without seeing the red-baiting attorney and fixer through the prism of the current President of the United States.
Director Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary zeroes in on Cohn as a mass of contradictions, a closeted gay man who denied that he had AIDS until his dying day, described by his cousin as a “self-hating Jew,” and known for his ruthlessness and determination to win at all costs.
The most salient feature in light of Cohn’s relationship to Donald Trump, however, is his commitment to spinning out his own version of events – to always claim victory in any situation, even those that are demonstrable losses or setbacks; and to never apologize or admit to being wrong.
Those who have studied Cohn likely won’t learn a whole lot new from the film, but that doesn’t make its lessons any less significant, or the narrative as a whole – given its relationship to current events – any less enlightening as a road map to Trump’s public-relations philosophy.
Those familiar with the famous rebuke of Sen. Joseph McCarthy at the Senate subcommittee hearings, for example – attorney Joseph Welch eviscerating him by asking, “Have you no decency, sir?” – might be shocked to see additional footage, in which the senators and lawyers made snide insinuations about Cohn, McCarthy’s chief counsel, and his relationship with G. David Schine, after Cohn lobbied to obtain special privileges for the Army private.
Cohn’s biography is equally fascinating as a legal savant, someone who graduated law school at the age of 20, began his public life pushing for the death penalty in the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and found power as McCarthy’s right hand. He later segued to New York City, where his interactions with both the city’s elite and the Mafia allowed him to wield considerable influence.
In the 1970s that circle also included Trump, who Cohn recognized as a kindred spirit. As president, Trump’s desire to find a lawyer willing to protect his interests while in the White House the way Cohn did reportedly prompted him to utter the phrase that gives the movie its title, as well as much of its media heat.
Cohn has long been a source of fascination, from the depiction of him in Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” to the HBO movie “Citizen Cohn,” which starred James Woods. But there’s something about seeing the man himself, and the almost reptilian streak he brings to the art of manipulation, including snippets of a “60 Minutes” profile and Tom Snyder interview.
Asked what makes him tick, Cohn offers, “A love of a good fight.” Cohn clearly reveled in his notoriety, as well as his role as a political puppeteer, one willing to rig every game and cheat in order to get his way.
“Where’s My Roy Cohn?” is by no means a flattering portrait; rather, the film portrays Cohn as being emblematic of everything that’s wrong with politics, class disparity and the current toxic political environment.
Were he still around, though, it goes without saying that Cohn would characterize the project as a stunning victory.
“Where’s My Roy Cohn?” premieres in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Sept. 20.