Flamboyant, terrifying, and pointedly timely, Matt Tyrnauer's documentary Where's My Roy Cohn? tells the story of one of America's most notorious political fixers while grounding him in an American half-century that allowed him to seed, and thrive on, its worst impulses. For older moviegoers and those who saw him represented in Tony Kushner's magisterial two-part play, Angels in America, the resurrection of Roy Cohn evokes painful memories of anti-Communist hysteria in the McCarthy hearings and the Rosenberg trials; the stigmatizing of gays in the military and the State Department; the rampant corruption of a decadent New York in the 1970s and '80s. In all of these, Cohn played toxic enabler or profiteer; and more often than not, both.
For younger audiences growing up in our own pugnacious age, Cohn will cut an all-too-familiar figure. A brilliant lawyer with no respect for the law and a flagrant liar as needed, Cohn was an attack dog springing for the throats for all who got in his way and many who didn't. Tyrnauer suggests, none too implicitly, that Cohn's scorched-earth tactics laid the groundwork for the paranoid style of politics that cuts America down the middle today. With his tailored suits and pale eyes, Cohn cultivated a just-try-me stare that eerily prefigures the hard-bore stare of that other kingmaker, Trump aide Stephen Miller. Yet Cohn, a celebrity hound who partied hard at Studio 54 and rarely turned down an interview, lacked Miller's willingness to operate mostly from the shadows.
A writer for Vanity Fair who, along with other non-fiction films about unsavory Hollywood types, made a non-fiction film about Studio 54, Tyrnauer passes smoothly over the well-known facts of Cohn's early life as the adored only child in a family of status-conscious string-pullers. Tyrnauer can be glib, and he's not above the occasional cheap shot. In the film's least prepossessing scenes about Cohn's ambitious mother's influence over her son, the director takes an undercover swipe at her alleged "unattractiveness," then gratuitously fortifies it with gleeful tattling about Dora Cohn's "ugliness" from Cohn's cousin, the feminist writer Anne Roiphe.
Nothing if not comprehensive, Where's My Roy Cohn? fully exploits footage pulled from Tyrnauer's anonymously sourced access to Cohn's personal archive, which gives us his incongruous stuffed frog collection as well as copious photos of his hangouts with handsome young men and his partying with the likes of Andy Warhol, Norman Mailer, former New York mayor Ed Koch, and his childhood friend Barbara Walters. (His "engagement" to the latter petered out from sheer inertia.). More ominously, audiotapes of journalist Ken Auletta's 1970s interviews with Cohn reveal a belligerent bully given to flat denial of this notorious homophobe's homosexuality and of proven facts that he cheated clients and the tax man and bent the law every which way to suit his purposes.
Gilding the dramatic lily with a floridly overbearing score, Tyrnauer marshals a small army of Cohn adversaries, journalists, family, and former colleagues. Today few have a good word for their mentor, boss or friend. Yet many (his protégé Roger Stone is predictably chatty and catty) betray a grudging admiration for the man's baleful charisma and his ability to attach himself to power. Until, terminally ill with AIDS, Cohn fell from grace at last, disbarred for cheating a client. Then most of Cohn's friends scurried away at speed.
Among the departed was Donald Trump, another Cohn protégé who pops up at regular intervals in the movie hobnobbing with his mentor and an assortment of pols and mobsters. From Cohn, witnesses assert, Trump learned his propensity for feint-and-dodge strategy, his rabble-rousing appeals to patriotism bolstered by denigration of designated Others. Mincing no words, Where's my Roy Cohn? takes its title from a frustrated outburst Trump directed at his former Attorney-General Jeff Sessions.
Was Cohn just an exceptionally nasty, if hardly the only, piece of work who clawed his way to the top over the corpses of others? Or did he, as the film implies, personify the American psyche in one of its darkest periods? Tyrnauer offers no explanatory voiceover, but Where's My Roy Cohn? offers a visceral reminder that a sense of history matters, perhaps especially in our own brawling, encamped time. A look at the past shows us that this is not the first time, nor the last, that we will inhabit a nation bitterly divided against itself by leaders — and their handlers — whom we cannot trust to tell the truth or safeguard our best interests. Whether we can hang onto our democracy anyway lies beyond the film's horizons — but not all that far. I, for one, left the theater grateful that Cohn never lived to get his hands on social media.