Dirty Rotten Scoundrels: ‘Where’s My Roy Cohn?’ and Trump

Matt Tyrnauer’s latest film suggests that mentoring ‘The Donald’ was Cohn’s most indecent act

8 mins read

Where’s My Roy Cohn?
(USA, 97 min.)
Dir. Matt Tyrnauer

“Roy was an evil produced by certain parts of the American culture,” says interviewee Anne Koiphe at the end of Where’s My Roy Cohn?. “There is always the possibility of another person who cares not about our traditions—or our laws, or our protections—who can come in and wreck it and break it for the neediest among us and the most vulnerable.” Koiphe is the cousin of the late lawyer Roy Cohn. She, like many of the interviewees in Matt Tyrnauer’s timely portrait of the much-loathed figure, speaks plainly while describing her cousin. There isn’t much love lost in the Cohn family, and one suspects there wasn’t much there to begin with, at least when it came to Roy.

After all these celebratory profile documentaries, it’s a joy to see a film like Where’s My Roy Cohn? in which the interviewees candidly portray the subject as an insufferably rotten bastard. The doc is the latest film by Tyrnauer (Studio 54Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood) and it delivers an insightful, thoroughly engrossing portrait of America both then and now with its objective study of a public figure. The doc deconstructs the persona, life, work, and legacy the hotshot Manhattan lawyer. Tyrnauer’s film surveys the reptilian lawyer’s controversial career in which he struck fear in the hearts of countless Americans and sacrificed his own heart in the process.

In a well-packed and tautly assembled 97 minutes, Tyrnauer observes the impact of Cohn’s ruthlessness from his formative years to his shadow that hangs over Washington 30 years after his death. The film looks at key episodes in Cohn’s notorious career. Chief among them is the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, two Americans that Cohn gleefully prosecuted for espionage. The talking heads convey how Cohn, at the tender age of 24, aggressively sought the death penalty for the Rosenbergs, communicating with the judge throughout the proceedings. Many interviewees recall how Cohn shattered the image of a safe post-war America in the process by suggesting to his countrymen that there were traitors and spies hiding in plain sight.

The Rosenberg case proves one of the most fascinating episodes of Cohn’s biography. It says a lot about Tyrnauer’s fresh and thorough approach to the material, too, since the case might arguably be the one with which most movie buffs are familiar. After its dramatization in Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America and Mike Nichols’ HBO miniseries adaptation starring Al Pacino as Roy Cohn and Meryl Streep as Ethel Rosenberg, there’s still a lot to say, especially from players who observed the proceedings from various degrees of Cohn’s circle.

Viewers will also note that Pacino bears little resemblance to Cohn—and the doc devotes a surprising amount of time to Cohn’s (physical) ugliness and the unfortunate looks he inherited from his mother, but that’s part of the doc’s appeal. Compare the footage to Angels in America and one sees how uncannily Pacino captured Cohn’s inner ugliness. Rarely has a doc featured a chorus of talking heads noting how ugly a subject’s mother was. Every interview in this film portrays Cohn as a black-hearted beast who grotesque inside and out.

The doc explains how Cohn’s success, if one can call it that, with the Rosenberg case led to his equally notorious tenure with the (also ugly) Senator Joe McCarthy. Tyrnauer offers oodles of footage of Cohn joining the witch-hunt to ferret out Communists and “un-American” activities. He sneers and commands fear in this footage, illustrating the cold-blooded, razor-sharp legal mind of which the interviewees speak. But his relentless probing of people’s personal lives inspired the infamous retort by lawyer Joseph Welch, “You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” The question defines Cohn in his life as well as in this film.

These McCarthy hearings introduce a tragic love story to the doc as Tyrnauer conveys how Cohn took a special interest in his colleague David Shine. The intimacy between the two is palpable with the stories and images with which Tyrnauer frames the story. However, Cohn’s persecution of homosexuals in public service as part of the McCarthy witch-hunt illustrates his obvious heartlessness as well his internalized self-loathing. His choice to use his position of power to harm vulnerable members of society instead of protecting them makes his cousin’s description rather apt.

There’s a lot to chew on in Tyrnauer’s tough and juicy portrait of Cohn. As the film weaves through the rap sheet of Cohn’s many misdeeds, it accounts for his connections with the mafia, his well-documented philandering, extravagant lifestyle, flamboyant persona, flagrant criminal behaviour, and sense of entitlement. All roads inevitably lead Where’s My Roy Cohn? to the lawyer’s protégé: Donald Trump.

Tyrnauer makes a bold case that the Rosenberg affair and the McCarthy hearings aren’t the biggest stains Cohn left on society. Trump is his legacy. The 45th American president is Cohn’s most indecent contribution to American life in a most indecent career. The doc connects all the dots with Trump’s uncouth personality, corrupt behaviour, distorted reality, and invincibility complex as he and Cohn worked in the same circles. (And much of Cohn’s histrionic tactics were preludes to reality television.)

In this new light, Cohn seems more Machiavellian, evil, and uglier than ever. Where’s My Roy Cohn? astutely uses one man’s shadow to interrogate today’s era of darkness. The words from Cohn’s cousin that end the film could easily be about Trump and his own embodiment of evil in America. In the great land of freedom and democracy, is there anything more un-American than behaving like these two dirty rotten scoundrels?

Where’s My Roy Cohn? opens in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Oct. 4, in Vancouver and Montreal on Oct. 11, and in additional cities to follow.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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