- Where’s My Roy Cohn?
- Directed by: Matt Tyrnauer
- Classification: PG; 98 minutes
He didn’t play by the rules. He was a self-loathing bully with a personality in disarray. He had contempt for people and the law. He was a “Teflon fraud” who understood the political value of wrapping himself in the flag. He was a tactless, vain, fame-chasing New Yorker with an out-of-season tan. He never apologized, never compromised and created phony issues to change the terms of the debate. He viewed life and relationships purely in transactional terms. Dude was evil, and subjected everybody around him to potential criminal liability.
Remind you of anyone?
The above are descriptions of the bulldog lawyer and controversial power broker Roy Cohn, the deceased subject of Matt Tyrnauer’s jarringly topical documentary Where’s My Roy Cohn? Those not of the Spy magazine set or anyone out of the loop when it comes to New York high-life lore might be asking “Who is Roy Cohn and why does the long-dead lawyer matter now?” The answer lies in the question posed by the film’s title.
It was Donald Trump, as President of the United States, who asked, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” According to The New York Times, in a moment of West Wing calamity the President demanded someone like Cohn, a man from his prepolitical past who had once served as his ruthless personal attorney. Probably upset that he couldn’t rely on his wacky consigliere Rudy Giuliani or his recusing attorney-general at the time, Trump desperately cried out for his one-time fixer. In that sense, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” wasn’t so much a question as it was a complaint.
A subject of much fascination, Cohn was a key character in the 1991 play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes and was portrayed by James Woods in the 1992 biopic Citizen Cohn. The reason we’re getting a documentary about Cohn now is that Trump was not only a client of Cohn’s but a protégé. (Can we say apprentice?) It was Cohn who passed on his playbook of dirty tricks and always-attack ethos to Trump in the 1970s. A cold-blooded Cohn saying that Trump urinated ice-water is his version of a father boasting “my boy’s going to play in the big leagues.” Trump is now leader of the free world and who wouldn’t be prouder than his power-craving mentor?
Tyrnauer, a Vanity Fair writer and the director of the excellent New York docs Citizen Jane: Battle for the City (2016) and last year’s Studio 54, doesn’t hammer the Cohn-Trump parallels. But although the Trump part of the film takes up only 10 minutes or so, it’s clear Where’s My Roy Cohn? is Trump’s origin story. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Frankenstein’s monster has eclipsed the accomplishments of his creator.
Trump declined to be interviewed for the film, but others seem more than happy to dish on the reptilian villain Cohn. Even the film’s surprisingly self-aware subject, in a recording made by The New Yorker magazine’s Ken Auletta, admits to being “completely tactless,” with a “total failure to sympathize with the emotional element in life.”
Cohn’s lack of empathy, the film supposes, came from his mother. A story about an inconveniently dead servant is just bonkers.
The story of Cohn’s flamboyant life, quite fascinating, is laid out coherently by Tyrnauer, whose interview subjects (including journalists, family members and a former boyfriend) offer opinions and anecdotes freely and often gleefully. They seem amused and awed by the powerful little man’s genius and amoral ingenuity, whether talking about his dastardly role in the execution of convicted spy Ethel Rosenberg, his daily regimen of 200 sit-ups or about how he took care of a teacher’s traffic ticket as a teenager.
Cohn was a raging hypocrite. A gay man who never acknowledged such, Cohn (with the scaremongering senator Joseph McCarthy) went after government officials and others not only for possible Communist sympathies, but also for alleged homosexuality – the so-called “lavender scare” of the mid-1950s. Cohen never publicly disclosed his 1984 AIDS diagnosis, but that didn’t stop him from calling in a favour to receive experimental clinical treatment. He died, disbarred and apparently broke, in 1986.
Where’s My Roy Cohn? is brash and relentless, much like the man himself. We won’t need to wait for a sequel. Because of the ascension of Cohn’s most eagerly unscrupulous student, we’re watching Part II unfold as we speak.
Where’s My Roy Cohn? opens Oct. 4.
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