Synopsis: Roy Cohn personified the dark arts of American politics, turning empty vessels into dangerous demagogues – from Joseph McCarthy to his final project, Donald J. Trump.
Stars: Ken Auletta, Roy M. Cohn, Joseph McCarthy, Roger Stone, Liz Smith
Director: Matt Tyrnauer
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: After Donald Trump gained enough Electoral College votes to claim victory on election night back in 2016, most of America was left shell-shocked and wondering how this could have happened. Keep in mind he lost the popular vote by millions. Entering the final weeks of the campaign with a growing list of concerns over his qualifications to lead the nation, it was almost safely assumed he stood no real shot at winning. So how did it happen? Did we all just have too much faith in our democratic system? Or did we not see that this rise to power was a long time in the making and a fox had been placed in the henhouse right under our noses even before the eggs had hatched?
The answer to the ascent of Trump can be traced back to one man, Roy M. Cohn, and he’s the subject of a new documentary making its way to theaters this weekend after first bowing at January’s Sundance Film Festival. The first of two documentaries released in 2019 on the flamboyant lawyer who died of AIDS related complications in 1986 at the age of 59, director Matt Tyrnauer’s approach is a fairly straight-forward telling of Cohn’s life through friends and colleagues and archival interviews with the man himself. Notoriously unlikable and almost proud of it, my only true exposure to Cohn up until this point was Al Pacino’s award-winning performance in the HBO mini-series Angels in America.
Reaching back to 1951 at the beginning of his career when Cohn was an aide to Senator Joseph McCarthy and assisted in the prosecution of the Rosenbergs, Tyrnauer charts how the closeted attorney used his influence to kick off the Army–McCarthy hearings of 1954. Hoping to protect a fellow McCarthy aide drafted into service, his dogged pursuit of getting the man out of having to serve wound up backfiring and nearly exposing the private lives of Cohn and possibly McCarthy. Once he left McCarthy’s side he made his way back to New York where he became a trusted council for a number of individuals with ties to organized crime, always finding loopholes or working out deals to avoid jail time for his clients. A feared legal eagle, Cohn wasn’t shy about wielding his power and enjoyed striking fear into his adversaries and even his close companions.
The last third of the documentary focuses in on Cohn’s relationship with Trump as the real estate magnate enters the big leagues in New York. Retaining Cohn to provide advice for working the system and bartering the best deals with the least amount of loss, hearing the techniques he taught Trump sounds very familiar to the kind of behavior we see on a daily basis now. Never admit you’re wrong. Never apologize. Claim defeat as victories. All tactics Cohn pioneered that Trump, as his clear protégé, carries on to this day.
While informative, it’s also a fairly sad documentary because Cohn was such a deeply unhappy and hypocritical man. Denying his sexuality for years in public though in private it was well known who he spent his time with, he still wanted people to believe he was going to marry Barbara Walters (of all people!), his longtime childhood friend. Worst of all, when Cohn contracted HIV during a time when hundreds of people were dying from it, Cohn vehemently squashed rumors he had the disease even as he pushed to be included in experimental treatment being conducted by the National Institute of Health. This when close friend President Reagan hadn’t even said the word AIDS in public but was helping Cohn get into clinical trials behind closed doors. Unthinkable. On one hand, I’m sad for Cohn but on the other he was such a wicked person that there’s a part of you that almost feels his end was a sort of karma for his actions during his life.
The next Cohn documentary is set to air on HBO before the year is out and I’ll be interested to see what new angle it would take to tell us more that we didn’t learn here. While not a comprehensive view of Cohn’s life, much of his childhood is reduced to small anecdotes by Tyrnauer in favor of focusing on the relationships he developed as an adult, it is informative and gives a good picture of why Cohn was such a polarizing individual to much of the country and why he was a golden god to a select few. Even now, some of the subjects interviewed seem wary of Cohn’s reach from beyond the grave.