In Brief: One of this country’s first well-documented political slimeballs.
Roy Cohn was a political wheeler dealer in the 1940s and 1950s. He was a nasty, nasty man. Cohn was an attorney and he rose to prominence in the 1950s for two things. First, he was part of the prosecution team for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. They were spies for the Soviet Union and gave them nuclear secrets.
Cohn pushed hard for the death penalty for both and played a big role behind the scenes at their trial.
Second, Cohn — because of his involvement in the trial — got noticed by Sen. Joseph McCarthy who had launched an anti-communist crusade and his infamous hearings. McCarthyism was the perfect vehicle for Cohn’s negative, controlling and manipulative personality. He could legally get enemies or supposed enemies, or people who crossed him with impunity and no one could do anything about it.
After McCarthy and his crusade crashed and burned, Cohn did not. He eventually went on to do battle for special interests on all kinds of levels and was called the quintessential fixer. Among those whose ear he had were Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
One of his more prominent clients was a very young Donald Trump.
This documentary — Where’s My Roy Cohn — hints at how much Trump learned about political manipulation, and the manipulation of media and the masses from Cohn. Whether that’s true or not is for the history books. Documentarian Matt Tyrnauer thinks it is but doesn’t really spend a lot of time on that part of Cohn’s life.
The guy was high-octane slime. And it will figure big time in Tyrnauer’s growing stable of excellent documentaries. The filmmaker has a fascination for sleazy characters. A lot of us do, too, which is why his films are actually seen.
Tyrnauer did the exceptional and critically acclaimed expose of doings at New York City’s legendary disco nightspot Studio 54. It — like the Roy Cohn story — is packed with archival footage of the sex, drugs and the not-so-rock-and-roll of the disco times. He also did Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood. That film accused a bunch of legendary Hollywood stars of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s of being gay, womanizers or manizers and sometimes all three. Scotty claims to have been the pimp for the stars and — says Scotty — he arranged for all kinds of debauchery.
The Roy Cohn documentary is debauchery of a whole different kind. He refused to come out of the closet but Tyrnauer alleges he was a homosexual. Since he died of AIDS and a former lover says on camera that he was, Tyrnauer is going with Cohn being gay.
The director also hints that McCarthy may have been gay, too which may be part of why he let Cohn run willy-nilly and roughshod over the people merely accused of being communists, un-American or gay.
The film also notes that many whose lives were destroyed by McCarthy and Cohn and later just by Cohn alone, were not communists and had done nothing wrong. Tyrnauer also wonders — correctly — whether being a communist, or a socialist, or gay really ought to have ever been a crime.
It actually wasn’t. But a guilty verdict in McCarthy’s committee was a career death sentence.
Even more importantly, what Tyrnauer eloquently shows best is how much Cohn influenced how politicians and n’er-do-wells of all types then — and now — manipulate the American political and economic system for their own greedy gain.
Some — like Tyrnauer — think that sounds very much like Donald Trump and many of today’s more manipulative spinmeisters.
Best of all, Tyrnauer pulls no punches. He undresses Cohn and shows him for exactly what he was and that is a major league slimeball and manipulator. No one — it appears — enjoyed hurting people politically or financially more than Cohn.
If you need a metaphor you can even say he was the Vince Lombardi (football’s legendary Green Bay Packers coach) of political manipulation. Winning to Cohn wasn’t — as Lombardi once proclaimed — everything. It was the only thing.
So what’s the point? Where’s My Roy Cohn isn’t going to be seen by a lot of people. However, if you are a student of history, this is an incredible study of some big reasons of how and why we — as a nation — got to where we are today politically. It’s jam packed with powerful political lessons.
And in this case, until now — depending on your political point of view — Tyrnauer’s movie is also a study of one of the biggest sleazebags of them all. Someone currently tearing through the political system of the U.S. like the proverbial bull in a china closet could end up being as bad — or even worse than — Cohn.
Maybe that’s the point.
Director: Matt Tyrnauer
Rated PG-13 for language and mature themes. Roy Cohn was a slimeball. His story and what he did in this country for a few decades is an important political lesson. Unfortunately, very few people will see this movie. Give it a Friday Flicks with Gary rating of 4 on the 0 to 5 scale.
Click here for theaters and show times.
Gary Wolcott has been reviewing movies on radio, television and newspaper since 1990. He believes — and this is an estimate only — that he’s seen something close to 10,000 movies in his lifetime. Gary is a lifelong fan of films and catches a couple of hundred movies a year. He believes movies ought to be seen on the big screen and not on the small screen in your living room or family room. While he loves movies, he also says reviewing film can be a real sacrifice and that he sees many movies so you don’t have to.
He is one of KXL 101.1 FM’s film critics and joined the news staff in 2014. Gary is also the film critic for Tri-Cities, Washington’s Tri-City Herald.