“Where’s my Roy Cohn?” The comment, made by Donald Trump during the investigation into Russian electoral interference, didn’t get much attention in January 2018. The president was calling on his aides to toughen up, to take a lesson from his former lawyer.
The film of the same name, however, shows just how disturbing the statement is. This is the story of the man who shredded the rule book of modern politics, and his protege who became president by setting its remains on fire.
“Roy Cohn” is shorthand for crook — now, as it was in the 1950s. The infamous lawyer got his name as the shrewd right-hand man of senator Joseph McCarthy. Cohn generated and exploited the Red Scare, hunting-down suspected communists and, as prosecutor, helping to ensure the death penalty for convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. He mercilessly persecuted LGBTIQ government workers, despite himself being a closeted gay man, and later represented the mafia.
He was kitsch and ostentatious, but known as a pitbull — a man with no remorse, no moral compass besides the dogged pursuit of victory. He had at a crooked scar down his nose that gave him the impression of someone recently punched in the face.
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Where’s My Roy Cohn? is a standard biographical doco in form, but in tone it’s closer to a horror movie. It ominously explains why Cohn became known as “the personification of evil”, while investigating how such a monster was made. Director Matt Tyrnauer (a former Vanity Fair writer) extends brief sympathies to Cohn — the odd child who disappointed his Jewish family of upper-class Democrats; the young prosecutor denying his crush on a man before a senate subcommittee; and the middle-aged phenomenon, near death, denying he had AIDS.
Some of this sympathy comes from the framing of old archival footage (some public, some sourced from Cohn’s personal archive), and some comes from talking heads. Interviewees include Cohn’s cousins, a former lover, journalists, and even Roger Stone — a Cohn protege-turned-Trump adviser. Stone was last month convicted of lying to Congress, obstruction of justice and witness tampering.
The film ends with Cohn’s death in 1986, but the appearance of Stone and Trump (only featured in archival footage, as the president refused an interview) inevitably wrenches you into the present. Tyrnauer wrote the treatment for this film the day after Trump won, and you can certainly feel it. The documentary is an elegiac reply to the people who screamed about the world going crazy in 2016; it shows that the world, in fact, has been this way for some time.
Of course, most of the people doing the screaming have since figured that out. So what’s the appeal of a film like this in 2019? Is it a cautionary tale? Well… it’s a bit late for that. Learning how we got here, in this particular situation, doesn’t make it any easier to navigate the path forward. Especially not when that situation has spiralled so much further out of control since.
As Tyrnauer has said on the film’s press circuit, “The basic lessons that Trump learned from Cohn were: never apologise; if someone hits you, hit them back a thousand times harder; any publicity is good publicity; and find an ‘other’ [to lash out at].”
Trump has made no secret of mastering these tactics, and his opponents haven’t found a successful way to counter.
The last we hear of Trump in the film is that he shunned Cohn, his mentor and friend, in the latter years of his life. All the social capital the lawyer had accrued was eventually lost: his high-society pals disappeared the second he was disbarred. I’m not so sure the same would happen today — Trump’s now calling out the guy’s name from the Oval.
Ultimately, Where’s My Roy Cohn? isn’t really about education or activism; it doesn’t look to impart any grand lesson or road map for change. This is horror; it simply reflects our anxieties.
And, with 2020 on the horizon, the film proves that reality is often enough to make us sweat.
Where’s My Roy Cohn? is showing at Dendy Newtown in Sydney and Cinema Nova in Melbourne from December 5.