WHERE’S MY ROY COHN, US, 2019. Directed by Matt Tyrnauer. 97 minutes. Rated PG (Mild themes, sexual references, coarse language).
‘Beyond Macchiavellian’. ‘A man with no boundaries’.
For audiences young enough not to have heard of Roy Cohn, this documentary, firmly critical of him – and beyond - will be something of a revelation. Audiences who know of his history will have the opportunity to go through it, his origins and growing up, the chronology of his legal and political activities, his final disgrace.
Cohn has appeared in a number of films as a character, James Woods portraying him in Citizen Cohn (1992), his being an aide to Sen Joe McCarthy in Tail Gunner Joe (1977, played by George Wyner), and, a forceful presence, object of disdain, criticised in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (2003, directed by Mike Nichols) where he is played by Al Pacino.
Born in 1928, Cohn had a law degree by the age of 20 but could not practice until he turned 21. Almost immediately, he was involved in anti-Communist campaigns, the case against Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as spies, saying that he would willingly have pulled the lever himself, then aide to the notorious Senator Joe McCarthy and the crusade against communists, involved, personally, in having promoted David Schine, a friend (or more) to work with McCarthy and the hearings against the Army for cover-up of communists. He survived Senator McCarthy’s exposure and downfall.
The documentary has a great number of talking heads, none of them, even relatives and friends, having good words to say about him. There is criticism of his doting mother, his father pressurising him, his short stature, his absolute aggressiveness and determination to win. Because he lived in a radio and television age, there are plenty of interviews with Cohn that can be drawn on, his self-analysis, his self-promotion, his philosophy of the end justifies any means (even to suggesting that Nixon should have destroyed the tapes and avoided the Watergate crisis).
In the second part of the film, Cohn is lawyer and consigliere to some of the New York Mafia families, defending John Gotti and others, very skilful in getting them off or minimising penalties. There is plenty of footage showing Cohn with the Mafia criminals.
In the first half of the 1980s, he works for Donald Trump and his father, cultivating a great friendship with Donald Trump, photos to prove it as well as television news excerpts. He served as a mentor to the young Trump, guiding him in how to deal with the law, with criticism… And, with the film’s release in 2019, it serves as quite a fierce critique of Donald Trump and his relationship with Cohn, some guilt by association…
Cohn pursued homosexuals in government offices with Senator McCarthy. The film shows innuendo about his relationship with David Schine. However, Cohn never came out, fielded questions about coming out of the closet, denied that he was suffering from AIDS, which he was, and from which he died.
The cumulative effect of the talking heads and their criticism: is certainly very effective, suggesting to audiences that he was some kind of embodiment of evil, that he was symbolic of what was wrong with American society in the 20th century.
Sony Released December 12th.
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.