Sundance Review: Where’s My Roy Cohn?

Score:  B+

Director:  Matt Tyrauner

Running Time: 97 Minutes

Rated: NR

There's a strong case to be made, especially after watching this documentary, that Roy Cohn is the single most influential and awful American of the 20th Century. A deeply complicated but thoroughly repugnant man, Cohn's fingerprints can be found on some of the lowest points in U.S. politics, including our current one. A power-hungry lawyer from New York, he was interested only in furthering his own interests, making a quick buck off everyone he could. His only friends were the people he could help do the same. But if you're not familiar with him, you're not alone. (I only knew him as a character in Tony Kushner's Angels in America.) This documentary makes sure you'll know all the awful details.

A hot-shot attorney from the Bronx, he was appointed prosecutor in the notorious trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The husband and wife were accused of espionage. They were likely guilty (or at least Julius was), but Cohn had no qualms about using a ton of unethical tactics to ensure their conviction and execution. He used his rising star to land a job as Senator Joe McCarthy's chief counsel, launching the House Un-American Activities Committee, hauling in hundreds of Americans to ask them about their possible Communist history. But the tide turned against them when they began accusing military brass of hiding Communists, partially in retaliation for refusing to give Cohn's friend (and possible lover) G. David Schine a deferment.

Cohn resigned, going into private practice and kick-starting his awful career. As a high-powered attorney at a New York law firm, there was no low he would stoop to to help his clients, frequently attacking the press and threatening counter-suits to intimidate any critics. If that sounds familiar, it will come as no surprise one of his biggest clients and confidantes was Donald Trump. I think it's safe to say without their relationship, in which Cohn encouraged Trump to become a bully and stiff the people he owed, he wouldn't be president right now. He'd just be another rich New York businessman. (And speaking of our current moment, it never stopped being funny that Cohn's close friend Roger Stone - who had just been arrested earlier the morning of the screening - subscribed to the same tactics and spoke fondly of Cohn in the film.)

Cohn had a lot of contradictions: He was a registered Democrat who almost exclusively helped the campaigns of Republicans. He was Jewish but sought to minimize his heritage. But his biggest secret was that he was gay and in the closet. Numerous people in the film point out that his large platform could have saved the lives of many gay men, had he come out and shared his AIDS diagnosis. Instead, he took it with him to the grave, even having Ronald Reagan arrange for him to receive special treatment for his disease that wasn't yet available to the general public.

In the end, Cohn died without friends and without much money. He burned through people, cash and sexual partners, not caring who he hurt in the process. Where's My Roy Cohn? is an important, informative documentary, and perfect example of how not to live your life.


About Kip Mooney

Kip Mooney
Like many film critics born during and after the 1980s, my hero is Roger Ebert. The man was already the best critic in the nation when he won the Pulitzer in 1975, but his indomitable spirit during and after his recent battle with cancer keeps me coming back to read not only his reviews but his insightful commentary on the everyday. But enough about a guy you know a lot about. I knew I was going to be a film critic—some would say a snob—in middle school, when I had to voraciously defend my position that The Royal Tenenbaums was only a million times better than Adam Sandler’s remake of Mr. Deeds. From then on, I would seek out Wes Anderson’s films and avoid Sandler’s like the plague. Still, I like to think of myself as a populist, and I’ll be just as likely to see the next superhero movie as the next Sundance sensation. The thing I most deplore in a movie is laziness. I’d much rather see movies with big ambitions try and fail than movies with no ambitions succeed at simply existing. I’m also a big advocate of fun-bad movies like The Room and most of Nicolas Cage’s work. In the past, I’ve written for The Dallas Morning News and the North Texas Daily, which I edited for a semester. I also contributed to Dallas-based Pegasus News, which in the circle of life, is now part of The Dallas Morning News, where I got my big break in 2007. Eventually, I’d love to write and talk about film full-time, but until that’s a viable career option, I work as an auditor for Wells Fargo. I hope to one day meet my hero, go to the Toronto International Film Festival, and compete on Jeopardy. Until then, I’m excited to share my love of film with you.