‘Where’s My Roy Cohn?’
Playing in the U.S. Documentary competition of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Running time: 97 minutes. Next screenings: Saturday, Jan. 26, 9 a.m., Temple Theatre, Park City; Sunday, Jan. 27, 6:30 p.m., Rose Wagner Center, Salt Lake City; Tuesday, Jan. 29, 4 p.m., Redstone Cinema 2, Park City; Friday, Feb. 1, noon, Library Center Theatre, Park City; Saturday, Feb. 2, noon, Sundance Mountain Resort Screening Room, Provo Canyon.
It’s only after death that we fully understand the toxic effect the New York lawyer Roy Cohn had on the American landscape — and Matt Tyrnauer’s intimate, frightening documentary “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” shows how he did.
Cohn was an intense attorney, equal parts bulldog and bully, who made his early reputation by following J. Edgar Hoover’s playbook for attacking Communists wherever possible. His first national headlines came when he prosecuted Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for treason, and put them both in the electric chair despite a worldwide campaign for mercy.
Cohn’s work got the attention of the anti-Communists in Congress, and soon was counsel to the subcommittee chaired by Sen. Joseph McCarthy as he worked to ferret out Communism in all walks of life. Cohn helped create the M.O. of McCarthy’s committee, where bluster and attack were the order of the day. A major facet of Cohn’s work was to smear anyone who criticized McCarthy’s efforts would themselves be labeled a commie.
This demagoguery worked for awhile, until the U.S. Army embarrassed Cohn by denying a waiver in the draft for his “friend” David Schine. Cohn urged McCarthy to bring Army brass before the committee and question their patriotism — a stunt that ended with the Army’s counsel, Joseph Welch, unloading on McCarthy with the famous quite, “Have you have no sense of decency, at long last.”
After McCarthy’s committee fell apart, Cohn returned to private practice in New York, displaying techniques that were less about knowing the law and more about knowing the judge. He ended up representing such mobsters as Carmine Galente and John Gotti. Cohn, ingratiating himself to Manhattan’s elite, also took under his wings a protege: A cocksure real-state wheeler-dealer named Donald Trump.
Tyrnauer digs deep to find footage of Cohn in interviews, and augments that with fresh interviews historians and journalists who have studied Cohn’s Machiavellian traits and their influence on McCarthy and Trump. (Former Trump consultant Roger Stone is among the first talking-head interviewees in the movie, and his presence onscreen prompted a wave of laughter with the Sundance audience at the premiere Friday — the same day Stone was arrested and indicted as part of the Mueller investigation.)
What’s remarkable about “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” — besides the title, taken from a quote from Trump in the White House — is that Tyrnauer manages not to humanize or make us empathize with Cohn. Even as Cohn is shown dying of AIDS, and refusing to admit it, the movie reminds us that as McCarthy’s committee counsel, he was a closeted gay man who led persecutions of homosexuals during the McCarthy days.