In the annals of American infamy, once upon a time you found the name Roy Cohn in the footnotes. Instead of being famous for the awful things he did, he was in the footnotes because everybody was very, very scared of Roy Cohn.
That has changed since Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer-winning play Angels in America had Cohn as a central figure. Around the same time, the HBO movie Citizen Cohn, with James Woods in the main role, took a stab at examining the man. Last year’s Netflix documentary Get Me Roger Stone also put Cohn closer to the centre of American culture and politics, emphasizing that Cohn introduced Stone to Donald Trump. At the time of that introduction, Cohn was Trump’s mentor and fixer. You could say that understanding Cohn means understanding a half-century of U.S. politics – and the current period in particular.
Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn (HBO on-demand/Crave) is a fascinating look at Cohn and a major addition to studies of the Trump-era. It couldn’t come at a better time, as Trump lashes out, hither and tither, launching lawsuits and threats in an election year. Cohn taught him how to do that and offered a model of how to succeed as a baneful narcissist.
The powerful documentary is made by Ivy Meeropol, whose grandparents were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In 1951, Cohn, just out of law school, prosecuted the Rosenbergs on espionage charges and argued successfully for their execution. They were alleged to have passed information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. Cohn then became Senator Joe McCarthy’s legal counsel during the Senator’s demented hunt for Communists. He was the hatchet man who harangued witnesses, threatened the press and drove innocent men to suicide.
As the doc makes clear, Cohn existed all his life in a matrix of malicious iniquity. He was a Jew who spouted anti-Semitism and a homosexual who persecuted gays. After the McCarthy period, he established himself as a lawyer in New York who could and would fix anything, from mob problems to media problems.
There are three strands in the story told here. First, Meeropol’s version of how Cohn prosecuted the Rosenbergs and the impact on the family. Then, Cohn as closeted gay man who, although he had driven other gay men to suicide by persecuting them, brazenly conducted an openly gay life, especially during the summers he spent in Provincetown, Mass., long known as a gay summer resort. His presence there (he often hosted big, cocaine-fuelled parties) outraged many men who knew exactly who he was and what wrongs he had done. Filmmaker John Waters, who was part of that drug-addled scene sneers, “I wouldn’t have had my nostril on the same straw as that pig.”
What becomes clear is that Trump came to idolize Cohn. He admired and used Cohn’s code of behaviour: Always be pugnacious, never admit you’re wrong, never pay your bills, and sue the heck out of anyone who tries to stop you or curb you.
The tales told in the doc about how Cohn helped get those Trump buildings completed in Manhattan – while unionized workers were on strike and the mafia controlled the industry – help explain where Trump got his political instincts. Attempts to understand Trump’s mind, his appeal to some voters and his tactics, is an industry unto itself these days. Fact is, Trump was Cohn’s acolyte and a shortcut to interpreting Trump is grasping Cohn’s method of functioning.
The two were tight up until Cohn was dying of AIDS while claiming he had liver cancer – the basis for a good portion of Angels in America. It was an all-lies, ignominious end and after his death, the Internal Revenue Service seized almost everything he’d owned. But his influence continues to seethe and won’t wane until Trump leaves the White House and his place is cemented in the annals of American infamy.
Finally, this column continues with a regular “stay-at-home-period daily-streaming pick.” Today’s pick is Diego Maradona (Crave). Soccer might be back, but only in empty stadiums, and if you want a taste or reminder of soccer at its most fevered, it’s here in this doc. Made by Asif Kapadia, it’s a speedy, heady account of Maradona’s years playing for Napoli in Italy’s Serie A; the great games, goals and great scandals. It teems with life and is unlike most biopics about a sports legend. It starts with a car chase and keeps that pace, stopping only to offer incisive insight into the player, the man and the public persona. Absolutely breathtaking.
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