Bt Miv Evans
This is a documentary about a genius lawyer and power broker who reached giddy heights before overplaying his hand and crashing into ignominy. It seems this was a man who could beat everything but the dark impulses of his shabby soul.
Roy Cohn was the only child of an heiress and a politician. He graduated from Columbia Law School at the unprecedented age of 20. He had to wait a year to be admitted to the New York bar as the minimum age is 21. Two years later, he sent two communist spies, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, to the electric chair. While Julius’ punishment was generally accepted, his wife was merely a side kick. Her execution was a lot for 1950’s America to stomach, particularly as unscrupulous means had helped Cohn win the conviction. As a result, he became a hero and a villain by a flick of the same switch.
From this ghoulish victory, Cohn moved on to an equally high-profile project with Senator Joseph McCarthy. In the midst of a ‘Red Under Your Bed’ scare, the two banded together in pursuit of an enemy who, it turned out, didn’t actually exist. When the truth was revealed, McCarthy faced public disgrace but Cohn suffered no such indignity. Instead, he became the darling of New York society, which said as much about New York as it did about Cohn.
By now, Cohn’s refusal to emerge from the closet was leaving a distinct whiff in the air. He was a homophobic, homosexual, anti-Semitic Jew, intent on persecuting Jewish gays. Both friends and foe who are interviewed in this film are happy to comment on this fascinating contradiction. But his family go in a different direction. A sniggering cousin claims that Dora was so ugly no man would marry her, but photographs tell a different tale. The same insult is bestowed on Cohn, whose electrifying eyes jump off the screen. Such hostility is bizarre and only adds to the mystique of this incorrigible figure.
Cohn’s most famous mentee was Donald Trump. Trump learned from Cohn to label defeats as victories; never admit to anything; never apologize; accuse your enemy of what you’re guilty of yourself; tell lies too big to be doubted and inflame the prejudices of the crowd by scapegoating defenseless people. Obviously, this strategy’s worked for Trump so far, but if Cohn’s catastrophic demise is anything to go by, the wrecking ball may be a-coming.
A Film by Matt Tyrnauer
Opens September 20th, 2019 (limited)
Distributed by Sony Pictures Classic