Upon digesting “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” a lot of viewers will come away in agreement with longtime Cohn antagonist Gore Vidal. “Roy Cohn has managed to stay out of jail all these years and I admire him for that,” Vidal says, with Cohn by his side, during a late-’70s talk-show appearance. “I’d like to have him as my lawyer.”
Who wouldn’t? So constitutionally pugnacious he might have punched his way out of the womb, Cohn is a current subject of fascination—and of Matt Tyrnauer ’s entertaining but highly conventional documentary—for being “the common thread from Joseph McCarthy to Donald Trump. ” The title of the film, as many will know, is an alleged presidential quote made when then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation. Oddly, the quote isn’t addressed in the film. But Cohn’s relationship with Mr. Trump certainly is.
There’s no mistaking Mr. Tyrnauer’s agenda, or the suggestion that painting a favorable portrait of Cohn might be an impossible task; even the late lawyer’s family members refer to him as ruthless, devoid of empathy and “the definition of a self-hating Jew.” In response to an interviewer who has asked about his unflattering public image, Cohn himself says, “the worse the adjectives, the better it is for business.” But the phenomenon of Roy Cohn—one interviewee describes being with him as being “in the presence of evil”—is about more than savvy business.
Most of what Mr. Tyrnauer serves up is not news, but to have it all in one place is to immerse oneself in a bilious lesson in history. Cohn, who first came to prominence prosecuting Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, was counsel to Joseph McCarthy during the Wisconsin senator’s subcommittee hearings into Communist infiltration of the State Department and later the Army-McCarthy hearings, which as the film points out originated in Cohn’s attempts to get privileged treatment for G. David Schine, a draftee with whom Cohn was, as a senator sneeringly puts it, “warm personal friends.” This viewer had never seen the footage Mr. Tyrnauer includes of the exchanges between Cohn and the senators questioning him, but the innuendo about Cohn’s not-so-secret homosexuality—which he denied till his dying day (of complications from AIDS in 1986)—is startling.
Among the revelations in “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” is what one relation calls the Cohn family Passover story: According to the cousin, the housekeeper who worked for Cohn’s mother, Dora, died in the kitchen and was kept under a serving table so as not to interrupt the Seder. Some might see it as a way of blaming mom for her infamous offspring, but it’s certainly a blackly comic capper to “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” The subject always knew where the bodies were buried. And, apparently, where they weren’t.