“Have you no sense of decency, sir?” asked Senator Joseph Welch of Joseph McCarthy and his young colleague, Roy Cohn, during the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings. On the basis of Matt Tyrnauer’s stellar documentary, had the latter been struck by a rare honest impulse, he would have categorically responded in the negative. Inspired in part by the director’s 2018 triumph “Studio 54” (in which Cohn played a part), “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” details the rise and fall of the legal bulldog, who stood by McCarthy and mentored Donald Trump with a ruthless unscrupulousness that knew no bounds, and who died in 1986 of an AIDS affliction he denied to the end. A biographical portrait that doubles as an origin story for today’s amoral political landscape, its marriage of incisiveness and timeliness should make it an indie hit this fall.
The words “manipulate” and “power” are heard ad nauseam in “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” — a fact that speaks to the near-universal consensus about the character and motivations of the lawyer, who made a name for himself by helping prosecute Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1951, and then by whispering sweet anti-communist nothings in the ear of Joseph McCarthy. The only son of a Jewish mother who vigorously doted on him, and with whom he shared a superficial ugliness that matched his internal repugnance, Cohn became a star thanks to his formidable legal mind and, just as importantly, his eagerness to break any and all laws that stood in the way of his goals.
Those were fame, money and influence over the country’s elites, as made abundantly clear by the many talking heads featured in “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” Cohn’s public image was further enhanced by the aforementioned Army-McCarthy hearings, which centered around his desire to get special military treatment for his colleague (and rumored boyfriend) G. David Schine. That endeavor, which everyone knew was rooted in his sexual feelings for Schine (the word “fairy” is even spoken during the hearings), directly contradicted his work alongside McCarthy persecuting homosexuals. It was the greatest, if not the only, example of Cohn’s consuming hypocrisy, which was also evident in his touting of fairness and forthrightness even as he lied, cheated and stole to his heart’s content, and his habit of cloaking himself in the American flag while subverting democratic institutions whenever it suited him.
According to “Where’s My Roy Cohn?”, it suited him all the time, be it when he successfully fought three separate indictments over professional wrongdoing, smeared political candidates through leaked press items, or helped his protégé, Donald Trump, beat the rap (courtesy of a settlement) on 1975 housing discrimination charges. Though he only factors into a relatively small portion of Tyrnauer’s latest, Trump looms large over these proceedings, since Cohn’s preferred codes of conduct – skirting the law and playing dirty at every opportunity; using lies and deceptions to divert attention away from misdeeds; feigning patriotism as a means of cloaking criminality – are echoed, on a daily basis, by our current commander-in-chief.
Aside from new on-camera chats with journalists, relatives, and acolyte Roger Stone (whose muted commentary suggests even he was in awe of Cohn’s black heart), Tyrnauer’s film is primarily comprised of archival TV clips, newsreel footage and audio interviews in which Cohn uncomfortably sidesteps questions about his sexual orientation, and confesses that his greatest failing is his sociopathic inability to sympathize with others. “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” is such a dedicated work of montage that it boasts no official cinematographer (8 cameramen are credited), and editors Andrea Lewis and Tom Maroney’s shrewd juxtapositions and employment of stock clips evocatively capture the atmosphere in which Cohn operated, and the incongruities between his personal and private selves.
Tyrnauer’s decision to eschew references to “Angels in America,” which famously immortalized Cohn as an AIDS-era villain, is a bit puzzling, and pointedly felt. Nonetheless, his examination of this attorney-most-foul is otherwise comprehensive, and shrewd enough to realize that Cohn’s life story is so relevant to the here and now, the issue need not be openly addressed at all.