There are documentary portraits that pay respectful tribute to their famous subjects, that measure their lives and accomplishments with varying degrees of admiration and ambivalence. And then there is “Where’s My Roy Cohn?,” which moves decidedly and unsurprisingly in the opposite direction. Its view of the notorious attorney and power broker Roy Cohn can be summed up in one interviewee’s unminced words: “If you were in his presence, you knew you were in the presence of evil.” After (or even before) seeing this absorbing, excoriating documentary, you may find it hard to disagree.
Unlike director Matt Tyrnauer’s previous films, which include “Valentino: The Last Emperor” and “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood,” “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” turns its gaze on a complicated but unambiguous monster. It offers a blunt, ruthless evisceration — which is to say, a clear-eyed assessment — of the brilliant legal mind who helped send the Rosenbergs to the electric chair and made his reputation as Joseph McCarthy’s attack dog. Until his 1986 death of complications from AIDS — an illness that, along with his homosexuality, he denied to the end — Cohn enjoyed a career of such flamboyant corruption and galling hypocrisy as to mark him as one of the crowning American villains of the 20th century.
And perhaps also the 21st century, given his formative influence on a certain commander in chief. The movie’s big 2019-ready hook is Cohn’s longtime relationship with Donald Trump, which began around the time the Justice Department sued Trump, his father and Trump Management for allegedly violating the Fair Housing Act. In representing Trump, the documentary argues, Cohn gave him an early lesson in political pugilism, teaching him to never back down or admit wrongdoing, to manipulate the media without shame and to lie, deny and counter-attack with relentless ferocity.
“Where’s My Roy Cohn?” — words that President Trump himself uttered after what he perceived as an unforgivable betrayal by his then-attorney general, Jeff Sessions — is hardly the only recent documentary to double as a Trumpism origin story. And the notion that Cohn was the president’s enabler and kindred spirit is certainly persuasive, despite the somewhat glib, attention-grabbing emphasis it’s given here. It’s also just one element of a portrait built on revealing interviews with Cohn’s friends, associates and family members. We hear from writers like Ken Auletta and the late Liz Smith; from the Republican fixer Roger Stone, one of Cohn’s most famous protégés; and also from a past boyfriend who’s happy to dish about Cohn’s various proclivities. (Oddly absent: any reference to Tony Kushner’s landmark play “Angels in America,” which gave this particular devil more than his due.)
But “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” derives its juiciest, queasiest fascination from the words and countenance of the man himself, seen here in a wealth of old photographs and televised interviews, at times accompanied by the seductive strains of Ravel’s “Boléro.” If the younger Cohn often looks pinched and uncomfortable, the older Cohn appears to have mastered a cool, reptilian charisma. The movie fixates often on the cold blue eyes, the heavily bronzed complexion and, at one point, the scars from a botched face-lift. If that level of scrutiny sounds petty, it’s also an apt approach to a subject whose vanity and self-loathing went hand in hand.
As many here tell it, Cohn inherited his lack of scruples, his lust for power and his transactional view of relationships from his domineering mother, Dora, and his father, Albert, a judge and prominent Democrat who gave him an early education in the workings of political power. A prodigiously gifted Columbia Law grad, Cohn was only in his 20s when he prosecuted Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on charges of espionage in 1951 and, by his own admission, secretly swayed the judge into handing them a death sentence.
That reputation-making affair brought Cohn to the attention of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and, eventually, McCarthy, who made him his chief counsel. It was his role in advancing McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade that brought him into contact with another consultant, G. David Schine, whom several interviewees describe as Cohn’s first real, all-consuming romantic obsession. It was Cohn’s badgering insistence on special military treatment for Schine that led to the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings (Counsel Joseph Welch’s famous “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” moment gets a satisfying replay here), which in turn precipitated McCarthy’s downfall and drove Cohn into private practice.
You almost (almost!) pity Cohn during clips of the hearings, which are rife with homophobic language and cruel, snickering speculations about his relationship with Schine. But the lawyer’s humiliation and defeat were only temporary, and “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” makes clear that they only further fueled his drive to manipulate the system and win at any cost.
He surrounded himself with women (including Barbara Walters, at one point rumored to be his fiancée) while pursuing daily flings with men. He became a friend of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, a consigliere to Mafia figures like John Gotti and a regular at Studio 54 (he even popped up in Tyrnauer’s 2018 documentary on that legendary disco). His crooked dealings helped build Trump Tower, a story of such multilevel corruption that it could merit a feature-length documentary of its own.
All this rushes by in a momentous blur of archival footage, the sheer abundance of which reminds you just how fully Cohn relished the spotlight, even as he had so much to hide. The men and women interviewed here do take eloquent stabs at explaining these and other contradictions and ironies: the self-hatred behind his relentless persecutions of gay people; the personal access to early AIDS treatment he received courtesy of President Reagan, who otherwise did next to nothing to acknowledge or mitigate the epidemic. The movie can’t fully disguise its glee as it lingers over the particulars of Cohn’s death — or, for that matter, its all-too-convincing lament that his spirit is still alive and well.
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: ArcLight Cinemas, Hollywood, and the Landmark, West Los Angeles