If there were a Mount Rushmore for real-life American villains, Roy Cohn would appear front and centre. Director Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary Where’s My Roy Cohn?, looks at one of the most influential Americans of the past century and examines how his ruthless tactics paved the way for today’s amoral political candidates.
Cohn, born in 1927, lived his life with a chip on his shoulder. He was an unattractive child who grew up ashamed of his Jewish heritage. Cohn’s father was an influential Democrat and raised his son around the democratic party’s movies and shakers.
Cohn posessed a savvy understanding of the political and legal systems, and grew up valuing power. His insecurities and sense of resentment fuelled his burning desire to succeed at any cost. In Cohn’s eyes, the concepts of right and wrong mattered less than winning by any means.
By the early ’50s, a young Cohn earned a name for himself working alongside Joseph McCarthy, “flushing out” communists and homosexuals. One of his most heinous acts was sending suspected spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to the electric chair based on inconclusive evidence.
The looming Russian menace terrified Americans during the early ‘50s, and Cohn capitalized on the hysteria. He was an agitator who always chose to throw the first political punch. Cohn leveraged his abrasive personality into a long and successful law career. He didn’t back down from anyone, never admitted he was wrong, and refused to apologize, making him the lawyer of choice for gangsters, cheats, and charlatans.
The film’s big hook is the way it connects Cohn to today’s scheming, antagonistic, and morally bankrupt political system. First, the doc shows us how Cohn’s aggressive tactics and hypocrisy lowered the bar for professional conduct in the legal and political systems. But then Tyrnauer takes things one step further and reveals how Cohn became an associate and then mentor for the current president of the United States.
Tyrnauer’s thorough examination of Cohn’s life feels like by-the-numbers biographical filmmaking. The doc takes us from Cohn’s childhood to his death and runs through all his most significant accomplishments along the way. There’s plenty of faded old photos, newspaper clippings, and archival footage, as well as friends, family members, and associates who offer more context.
Like most conversations in 2019, Where’s My Roy Cohn? shifts its focus to America’s blowhard-in-chief. The film’s title, Where’s My Roy Cohn? is based on the phrase the current president uttered after hearing his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, recused himself from the Russia investigation. It’s a morally bankrupt call for a loyal henchman willing to place his employer above the law, and above his country.
There’s one more wrinkle to Cohn’s story; the fact that drives home the incredible degree of all the lying and hypocrisy. Cohn was a closeted gay man. He surrounded himself with attractive young men and was even so bold as to call in some political favours to get his man-crush out of army duty. In 1986, Cohn died from complications from AIDS. And he went to his grave denying those two facts.
At one point in the film, a journalist asks Cohn if he is a homosexual, and Cohn refuses to provide a yes or no answer. Here is a man who showed no qualms about defending cold-blooded killers and sending people to the electric chair, but something inside him can’t deliver this particular bald-face lie. I wish this film spent more time exploring that little flicker of conscience.
Tyrnauer’s well-researched film does an excellent job explaining how this man behaved like a soulless ghoul. But the way the filmmaker goes about doing so feels rote. We can’t turn on the cable news without seeing some modern version of Roy Cohn. In 2019, we’ve all levelled-up our abilities to spot Cohn-esque figures. The conversation must move past explaining who they are and what makes their behaviour so appalling. It’s time to talk about how society enables people like Roy Cohn, and why we let them get away with murder.