On a day at the Sundance Film Festival that began with a documentary accusing the late Michael Jackson of child molestation and will also include a look at Harvey Weinstein, it takes a lot to challenge for the title of the worst person to get a Sundance doc. But Roy Cohn was nothing if not a fighter, and Matt Tyrnauer’s “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” makes a pretty strong case that the New York lawyer and power broker was about as corrupt and mendacious as they come.
Cohn is in many ways the perfect villain: a master of amoral backroom dealing who served as chief aide to Senator Joseph McCarthy, rose to power through his connections and defended gangsters, helped Ronald Reagan come to power, befriended and mentored Donald Trump before being disbarred.
With his heavy-lidded eyes and bulbous nose, he cut an unprepossessing but sinister figure. “Roy Cohn’s contempt for people, his contempt for the law, was so evident in his face that if you were in his presence, you knew you were in the presence of evil,” says one acquaintance in the film.
And Cohn’s timeliness is clear from the film’s examination of his relationship with Trump, but it got an added jolt early in the movie when another Cohn protegé, Roger Stone, appeared on the screen only a few hours after being arrested by the FBI in special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe. His appearance, of course, drew a round of knowing laughter from the capacity crowd at the Marc Theater.
In the Q&A after the screening, Tyrnauer said he decided to make the movie on the day Trump was elected; until that moment, he said, he thought Trump would fade from sight and Cohn’s legacy would fade.
The film makes a good case for that legacy being entirely negative, leading to today’s cutthroat, divisive and lie-packed politics. But it also, crucially, makes a case for Cohn being a fascinating subject, a bundle of contradictions in a slick and soulless package.
Cohn was Jewish, but a cousin describes him as “the definition of a self-hating Jew.” His family was Democratic and so was he for a long time, but his political influence was almost always in the service of Republicans. He was a viciously hard-nosed litigator who kept a huge collection of stuffed animals and frog figurines at home.
And he was a deeply closeted gay man who waged anti-gay witch hunts and would never admit his sexual orientation even as he was dying of AIDS. (He insisted he had liver cancer, even as his friends the Reagans pulled strings to give him access to experimental AIDS treatments.)
While the depiction of Cohn’s career, littered with shady dealings and an utter lack of empathy, is effectively told, the real gems in Tyrnauer’s portrait are they n the surprising little touches, from the stuffed animals to the astounding and enlightening fact that Cohn owed his very life to a shady backroom deal.
Cohn’s mother, one relative tells Tyrnauer, was “the ugliest girl in the Bronx,” with an unpleasant personality to boot. But her family had all kinds of high-powered business and political connections — so they promised a young lawyer, Al Cohn, that if he married her they’d make sure he was appointed a judge.
The film, which is looking for distribution, is a delectable look at a despicable person — and, as Roger Stone’s arrest showed, a cautionary tale that could scarcely be more timely.
Of course, by the time “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” began at Sundance, Stone had already been released pending further court appearances. As Roy Cohn would tell you, it’s all about who you know.