As polemical documentaries go, Where’s My Roy Cohn? makes its case with an abundance of evidence. Its stance is simple: President Donald J. Trump learned everything about the ruthless exercise of power from notorious lawyer Roy Cohn, who launched his career as chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the 1950s anti-Communist purges. Cohn went on to represent New York mob bosses, befriend Ronald Reagan before he was president and mentor young Trump. The fact that Cohn was disbarred in the 1980s for ripping off his own clients and repeatedly lying about it under oath tends to bolster the judgmental point of view of director Matt Tyrnauer (Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood).
Among the things Cohn lied about “over and over and over again” (to quote one interviewee) was the fact that he was gay and, in the mid-’80s, dying of AIDS. Tyrnauer traces Cohn’s lies about his sexuality back to the 1950s, connecting Cohn’s attraction to young, Nordic men to McCarthy’s fall from grace — a little-known victory for justice over the closet.
Tyrnauer’s sources include a spectrum of figures, including now-indicted Trump ally Roger Stone, several Cohn relatives, a former Cohn boyfriend and a number of journalists and others who dealt directly with Cohn. The subject himself is seen in many archival clips, so Tyrnauer can’t be justifiably accused of talking only to Cohn’s enemies. His team clearly did its homework in digging up archival footage — perhaps to a fault as some stretches of the film linger on old footage of yachts, parties, printing presses, prostitutes and so on, stalling the narrative now and again. But the picture of Cohn seems both complete and well supported by the facts presented.
Tyrnauer’s goal isn’t to damn Trump because he associated with Cohn, but because he emulates Cohn, a man who once told a journalist that he had a “total failure to sympathize with the emotional side of life.” Cohn, Tyrnauer argues, taught the young real estate developer his cardinal rule: “Never admit you’re wrong. Never apologize.”
Where’s My Roy Cohn? is must-see viewing for anyone who wants to better understand the world that produced Trump — a world, the film depicts, of lies, cheats, mobsters, corrupt journalists and egocentric celebrities where Cohn thrived for decades.
Starts Nov. 1 at Grail Moviehouse