Roy Cohn was a hatchet man throughout his life, so it’s perhaps appropriate that Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary takes the blade to the man himself. The adjective repeatedly used by the gallery of commentators who serve as interviewees in “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” is “manipulative,” and it applies to the film, too. But then, many, probably most, viewers will agree that he richly deserves the same sort of harsh treatment he so lavishly meted out to those he attacked to serve his own ambition—an approach that discloses the sleazy means he could devise to advance not only his own interests but those of the powerful people he so assiduously cultivated.
In other words, do not expect the faintest hint of even-handedness in the film. Even when an interviewee one might expect to say something moderately positive about Cohn is introduced—an ex-member of his legal staff, for example, or a sort-of protégé like Roger Stone—the comments are acidic. (The closest Stone can come is to observe that Cohn was a master at what he did.) And the vast majority of those interviewed are positively scathing in their remarks. Of course, some praise might exist in Tyrnauer’s rough footage, but if so it’s been assiduously edited out of the final cut. There’s also condemnation by proxy in the film’s connection of Cohn not only to Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, but to Donald Trump, who—it’s strongly suggested—learned his tactic of denying everything and never apologizing from him. What could be a more devastating criticism than that?
Tyrnauer also bears down heavily on the hypocrisy of a man who, in archival interview footage, proclaims his utter hatred of hypocrisy; it’s one of the major themes of the documentary that Cohn denied suggestions that he was gay to the very end of his life despite abundant evidence to the contrary (including an interview here with a long-time lover), and also dismissed questions about whether he was suffering from AIDS, though it was from the effects of that condition that died in 1986. To that end he emphasizes not only Cohn’s relationship with G. David Schine that led to the Army-McCarthy hearings (in which, as archival footage shows, veiled references to homosexuality were hardly absent), but the fact that McCarthy and Cohn went after gay, as well as Communists, in the government.
But Tyrnauer unquestionably incorporates his obvious bias into a portrait of Cohn that is certainly gossipy and tabloidesque, but also irresistibly watchable. It covers his life from birth to death, hitting all the major personal and professional points in between–e,g., his relationship with his mother, his involvement in the Rosenberg trial, his glitzy New York lifestyle, his mob connection, the allegation that he was behind the fire on a yacht that killed a young man, his business failure as head of the Lionel corporation, his eventual disbarment on various charges–with its mixture of found footage, a vintage audio interview with Cohn conducted by Ken Auletta, and clips from interviews with the likes of Stone and columnist Liz Smith among others. Ably aided by editors Andrea Lewis and Tom Maroney, Tyrnauer has fashioned a snarky but entertaining exercise in cinematic excoriation that makes a compelling case for its thesis that Cohn is a founding father of the compulsively divisive nature of our contemporary political culture.
Of course, there will be those who deplore “Where’s My Roy Cohn?”—or at least pretend to—not only for its obvious bias, but for the relish of its attack on Cohn’s character (in the National Review. Armond White declares it an act of “demonization” and condemns liberals’ abandonment of “compassion” as well as “complexity”—a criticism that one might level with even greater vehemence against most of the right-wing documentaries produced in recent years–I’m looking at you, Dinesh D’Souza. But of course if another feels the urge to rehabilitate a reputation he feels Tyrnauer has unfairly tarnished, he’s welcome to take up a camera and try.