Rating: (3 stars)
As filmmakers seek to decipher and interpret the current political moment, it’s natural — and useful — to go back to where it might have all began. “Where’s My Roy Cohn?,” Matt Tyrnauer’s absorbing documentary about the notorious New York fixer and mentor to Donald Trump, acts as a kind of cinematic begats, ostensibly profiling a man who may be long gone, but whose impulses and pursuit of power live on through his most famous protege.
In the boisterous, bare-knuckled world of Manhattan finance, tabloid publicity and performative success, Cohn and the young Trump were natural allies, with the Queens real estate developer hiring Cohn to help fight charges of violating the Fair Housing Act, and closely observing the ruthless tactics employed by his attorney and his fish-eyed Svengali — tactics that included smearing the enemy, scapegoating the dispossessed, alternately courting and demonizing the press and brazening out any accusations of wrongdoing or mendacity, no matter how well-founded. Sound familiar?
“Where’s My Roy Cohn?” finds the roots of its protagonist’s M.O. in his parents, whose own marriage, the film suggests, was the result of a Cohn-worthy deal of backroom machinations. Growing up in the Bronx in the 1930s, Cohn was steeped in the world of political power plays — his father, a judge, was prominent in Democratic politics — as well as deep-seated shame imparted by his overbearing mother. Bright and well-tutored in the tradecraft of string-pulling, Cohn graduated young from law school and wound up in the thick of anti-Communist investigations in the 1940s, eventually working on the Rosenberg trial and alongside Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Aggressive, single-minded and shrewd, Cohn was also most likely a closeted homosexual, able to wall off (and lie about) his affairs with men while hounding gay government employees out of their jobs.
All of this, as well as Cohn’s deep-sixing of various political candidacies, his love of nightlife and the company of young men, is briskly and colorfully recounted in “Where’s My Roy Cohn?,” in which Tyrnauer interviews Cohn’s relatives, opponents, journalists who covered him and, with the appearance of dirty-trickster Roger Stone, at least one star student. Despite his obvious aversion to Cohn’s most amoral behavior, the filmmaker makes space for sympathy, however confounding, for a man who emerges as constantly battling his own internalized homophobia and anti-Semitism. And he reserves a special place in hell for the New York swells and socialites who gave him cover, regardless of scruples or lack thereof.
Although “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” follows the contours of a conventional biopic, in this case it all leads to intersections that would prove fateful, not just of Cohn and Trump, but Ronald Reagan and Rupert Murdoch, the latter of whom would become a presidential kingmaker thanks to Cohn’s counsel. Interestingly enough, Trump wound up turning his back on Cohn who, having been disbarred for unethical conduct and malfeasance, died of AIDS-related complications in 1986.
The betrayal, as witnesses recount in “Where’s My Roy Cohn?,” stung the ailing Cohn. But he should have seen it coming from a rat he had raised from a mouse, so to speak. Today, Cohn-ism — often called the “dark arts” of American politics — has morphed into civic business as usual, wherein truth is malleable, relationships are transactional and ethics are strictly for losers. No doubt there are historical and structural reasons behind this evolution. But through the lens of the eminence sleaze at its center, “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” offers as cogent a primer as any on how we got here. Meanwhile, somewhere down there, Roy Cohn is having the last, bitter laugh.
R. At area theaters. Contains mature thematic elements, some sexual material and violent images. 97 minutes.