Roy Cohn was, by his own description, a vicious and feared lawyer. But he himself was also quite frightened. He was a central figure in two major cultural scares in post-World War II America. The Red Scare is the one that people are most familiar with, as Cold War tensions drove Communist paranoia into a frenzy of accusations and lists and hearings. Cohn hated and feared those Commies and orchestrated investigations and prosecution alongside the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy.
There was also the lesser-known Lavender Scare because being gay was seen as a major liability: you had a secret that could be exploited by Commies. Cohn wasn’t keeping his own homosexuality a secret too well in the 1950s. He had to participate in his own public ridicule during the Army-McCarthy Hearings, and yet, he still participated in outing and ousting gay people too. Cohn was a quintessential American contradiction: judgmental and vehement about others, easy on himself.
Matt Tyrnauer’s scintillating, gossipy, heavy-handed documentary Where’s My Roy Cohn? delves into Cohn’s contradictions without much illumination. Hunger for “power” doesn’t explain to me why a person acts against their own interests on a national stage, over and over. Cohn clearly had a complex and dark psychology, fueled by righteous indignation much of the time. He attacked his opponents in the courtroom, describing law as the ultimate “adversarial profession,” and took pride in his ruthless reputation.
After leaving the McCarthy committee, Cohn represented multiple members of the Gambino crime family, advised Nixon and Reagan, and befriended Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch. All sorts of unsavory New York City building, transportation, and brokering was done through Cohn. In archival interviews, he talks about his own unemotional and impatient nature. That translated to recklessness, which won him cases until it didn’t. He was eventually indicted for fraud and then disbarred before his death in 1986.
If you aren’t sure how you’re supposed to feel about Cohn, the soundtrack to this doc will remind you that he’s a monster. Don’t get me wrong, he was. But this film spends an inordinate amount of time on Cohn’s looks (“ugly!”) and promiscuity (“male prostitutes!”; “obviously he had AIDS!”) for my comfort. All of that seems neither here nor there when there’s such rich public record of monstrosity. I’d rather dig into his complex motivations than linger on misplaced shaming.
The two versions of Cohn, public image and private lived experience, are fascinating and haunting. You can see the shadow of a real analysis start to appear in some scenes. His intersecting ideas about patriotism and the legal process are his true legacy, as they’ve reverberated through generations. Tony Kushner’s characterization in Angels in America of this man, dying and haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg — she was executed for espionage at his urging — is so powerful because we get to further explore those ideas. They haunt our collective psyche. I want to talk about that!
Where’s My Roy Cohn? is an entertaining film and does draw some interesting links. The archival footage is priceless, including a talk show confrontation between Cohn and Gore Vidal that is strange and hilarious. I wish I didn’t feel so icky after watching, though. There’s a sense that we as the audience were laughing at the wrong things, bullying this former bully with whispered tales of indiscretions that we know we shouldn’t bring up. Perhaps this comes down to an editing trap — the mean snippets are so very watchable.
Next year, another documentary on Cohn will premiere on HBO directed by Ivy Meeropol (granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg). I’ve read that it’s more nuanced and generous to his nature. I hope so. We have to do more to understand this man who held such importantly American contradictions.