Roy Cohn spent fifty years in the public eye, first as chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, and then as the go-to lawyer for high-powered people in trouble, from mafia dons to Donald J. Trump. His life is the stuff of legend, already cemented as such in Tony Kushner’s brilliant drama Angels in America. Matt Tyrnauer’s new documentary offers fresh insights into this notorious and fascinating man, thanks to candid interviews with family members who provide context for his sociopathic personality and professional colleagues who catalogue his misdeeds and unbridled arrogance.
A power broker for decades until his death in 1986, Cohn was a canny self-promoter. There was no shortage of newsreel and television footage for Tyrnauer to draw upon. Journalist Ken Auletta even gave the filmmaker access to a remarkably blunt interview that was preserved on reel-to-reel tape.
Although he manipulated the judicial system in the shadows, he was always in the spotlight—and craved the attention. But publicity turned out to be Cohn’s Achilles heel. He says on one TV show that he welcomes being called dirty names; it’s good for business. Until it wasn’t.
I don’t want to spoil the impact of the documentary by revealing all the juicy nuggets it has to offer. I must admit I never appreciated the origins of the Army-McCarthy hearings or the undercurrent of homophobia that ran through those proceedings.
Where’s My Roy Cohn? is a first-rate piece of investigative journalism, a cautionary tale, and a fascinating piece of entertainment, especially if you lived through the period it depicts so well. Those who don’t know anything about this Machiavellian figure will learn all they need to know. I was glued to the screen from start to finish.