“WHERE’S MY ROY COHN?”
An Angry and Impressive Look at an Angry and Unimpressive Man
“Where’s My Roy Cohn?” takes its title from a question that Donald Trump asked those around him when they failed to stop attorney general Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from the Russia investigation. Then we take a trip back in time to Trump’s formative years followed by interviews and archival footage and we are off on a chronological tour of the critical events that followed. Director Matt Tyrnauer has a knack for pacing and gives us a documentary that gets more engrossing as it goes along; the most vital bits are reserved for the bitter end, when, even in death, Roy Cohn still refuses to admit defeat.
Roy Cohn was a corrupt lawyer, political dirty trickster, mafia associate and all around scumbag. He was a self-hating Jew who powered the engine of one of the worst anti-Semitic moments in American history, the demonization and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. He was a closeted man who refused to publicly identify as gay even as he was dying of AIDS. He was famous for being a mean bastard.
Cohn was born in New York in 1927 was heir to a number of fortunes on his mother’s side. She was said to be so ugly that she had trouble finding a husband. Cohn’s father agreed to an arranged marriage so long as her powerful family made him a judge. This blatant, unfeeling corruption came to be a hallmark of Cohn’s life. He graduated from Columbia Law School at the age of 20 and quickly found himself as one of the leading “red-baiters”, rooting out communists in government positions and the U.S. Army for the good of democracy. He worked with Senator Joseph McCarthy whose last name is a now a synonym for political witch-hunting.
McCarthy and Cohn’s harassment of presumed communists and sympathizers has overshadowed a subsequent “lavender scare” in which the pair harassed and exposed homosexuals. (It is rumored that McCarthy, like Cohn, was also secretly gay as was FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, who encouraged these witch hunts.) A series of hearings in 1954 suggested that much of McCarthy’s pressure on the US army was led by Cohn’s desire to secure a better position for a man named G. David Schine, who was either Cohn’s boyfriend or someone he was infatuated with.
Cohn fueled himself off accusations and fighting. His strategy was always to deny then lie even louder. As a personal attorney he would win high-profile cases through the use of “deflection, misdirection and fear-mongering.” He had powerful friends and attracted wealthy clients in New York, most notably the heads of organized crime families and the young real estate mogul Donald J. Trump.
Tyrnauer’s film is a collection of talking heads (including and news clips. We see that despite a twenty year age difference between Trump and Cohn, Trump seems to have been nurtured by Cohn’s disgusting work, the two were close for many years. They first bonded over a shared love of denying African-Americans their civil rights. This led to corruption and kickbacks during the erection of Trump Tower. Cohn loved to see his picture in the paper, and was known for his must-attend parties, so there are ample images in this documentary to make you sick.
This film is part of a forthcoming wave from film-makers who are trying to grapple with just how in the hell we got to where we are making this an important film. For many years, Donald Trump was a joke (and never a harmless one). The damage he’s currently doing makes us ashamed that we laughed at him especially as he strives to get the last laugh. “This film connects a direct line between Roy Cohn’s belligerent, boorish and obstructionist ways and our current, less eloquent nightmare.” We now know “where’s my Roy Cohn?”— he is in the White House.
Tyrnauer exposes Cohn as a modern Machiavelli who influences our country today at the highest level. Cohn first came into the public eye as an assistant to J. Edgar Hoover and handled the prosecution of Julius and Ethyl Rosenberg, a Jewish couple who were arrested, tried, convicted and executed for spying for Russia and securing Manhattan Project documents for the Russian government. Cohn was then a twenty-three-year-old fast-rising attorney and he claimed to have not only persuaded the presiding judge, Irving Kaufman, to impose the death penalty but also to have had said Judge Irving assigned the case. Cohn’s reward for the Rosenberg execution was an appointment as special counsel to Joseph McCarthy.
Tyrnauer provides compelling evidence that Cohn was responsible for much of McCarthy’s demagoguery and rise to power. Soon, however, Cohn would cause his own and McCarthy’s fall from grace. During the Army-McCarthy hearings, direct questioning it was revealed that Cohn had a “special relationship” with G. David Schine and pressured the U.S. Army to give Schine preferential treatment. Cohn would resign after he was humiliated and pummeled with homophobic comments during the televised hearings. He, then, claimed that everybody wanted him to stay on. According to those who worked with Cohn, this was not the case.
Cohn came to be the personification of the dark arts of 20th-century American politics. Cohn became a mover and shaker of dubious and odious means. He fluffed his persona despite inflicting financial losses on his clients and family. Trynauer reveals how Cohn, a deeply troubled master manipulator, has shaped our current political world. He continually and persistently defended himself by attacking his adversaries and using the press to generate sensational public sympathy for his plight.
It appears that his political clout came from his wide social circle of wealthy, influential friends. Cohn was known for throwing lavish parties and hobnobbed with almost every imaginable socialite of the day including then artist, Andy Warhol. Cohn became a New York power broker, mafia consigliere, white-collar criminal, and he mentor of Donald J. Trump who began his flamboyant rise first on Cohn’s shoulders and then his back. Eventually, Trump became the master of personal attacks, hyperbole, sensationalism, and using the press to get out in front of the story.
As a closeted homosexual, Cohn was at the forefront of “The Lavender Scare,” and convinced Dwight D. Eisenhower to ban all gay men from working in the federal government; when dying from AIDS-related complications several decades later, he insisted that he was suffering from liver cancer, and used his celebrity to provoke contempt for other victims of the growing plague.
Cohn had an unparalleled talent for making the worst of every bad situation. He always attacked and he never surrendered. Cohn was a byproduct of trying to outwrestle his own insecurities and lack of self-worth.
Cohn might have been a footnote in American history until the 2016 election. It was then that he became seen as a modern Machiavelli. That this delayed emergence of him as a figure of immortal, worldwide political importance is fascinating and sickening at the same time.
The film is a Must-See, given the times we’re living in. It’s no exaggeration to say that Trump learned everything he knows from Cohn. Every time we see him lie outrageously, every time you see him respond to an attack by attacking back with twice the force, we see Roy Cohn’s legacy at work. And when Trump finally finds himself in court, as he inevitably will, they will never get him on anything. He’ll just use Cohn’s tactics to bury everyone involved in counter-lawsuits.