By C.J. Hirschfield
Although the filmmakers never reference the quote that serves as their title, it actually was uttered by our current president following the January, 2018 fallout from the report on Russian interference in the 2016 elections, when he needed an attack dog of an attorney to unleash. Roy Cohn had served as Donald Trump’s personal lawyer and fixer decades ago in New York, and the film doesn’t have to try very hard to point out the similarities in the characteristics the two share: that it’s all about winning, and whatever that takes.
Cohn knew—and we also knew—what the headline on his obituary would be. When he died of AIDS in 1986, his role as chief aide to the Communist-crazed Senator Joe McCarthy was the lede. But Cohn’s life from the 50’s through the 80’s was a life whose theme was remarkably consistent, and featured a never-ending parade of politicians, celebrities, Mafia dons—and Donald Trump. WHERE’S MY ROY COHN? takes us there, and it’s an engrossing portrait of a complicated, but fascinating man.
The film, directed by Matt Tyrnauer features commentary from a wide range of people: family members, journalists, co-workers and even one of Cohn’s male lovers.
And they have a field day with words they use to describe the man. Just a few: Powerful. Ruthless. Vicious. Aggressive. Smart. Amoral. Reckless. Arrogant. Flamboyant. Political puppeteer. Demagogue. Beyond Machiavellian.
We learn that, at age 15, Cohn fixed his first bribe, getting his teacher out of paying a parking ticket. From a privileged Jewish family with a mother that doted on him, Cohn was only 20 when he graduated law school and just a few years later signed on with Senator Joe McCarthy.
One of the most interesting areas covered by the film is the House Un-American Activities Committee’s aggressive push in 1954 to rout out homosexuals from the State Department. Roy Cohn was actively engaged in the charge, even as he was traveling on extensive trips with G. David Schine, a handsome heir to a hotel fortune, and chief consultant to McCarthy. Eye-opening archival footage shows Congress members making snide and homophobic references to “fairies.”
In the end, McCarthy was brought down when attorney Joseph Welch, hired by the Army to make its case, famously asked the Senator “Have you no sense of decency?” This basically led to the Committee’s (and McCarthy’s) downfall. But based on Roy Cohn’s three decades of life after the hearings, we can only assume that his answer would have been an emphatic “no.”
“Where’s my Roy Cohn” provides a thorough and absorbing story of a bigger-than-life, and uniquely American figure, with opinions as to how he came to be the man he was.
“I hate hypocrisy,” Cohn is quoted as saying, but the most interesting aspect of the film is how it successfully works to debunk that assertion. Called a “self-hating Jew” by his own cousin, he was also unwavering in his claims that he was not a homosexual, and that he was dying of liver cancer, and not AIDS, until the end.
Roy Cohn was disbarred just weeks before he died at age 48, for stealing from clients (and in a particularly repugnant way). Roy Cohn’s life was truly Shakespearian—a grand tragedy.
Comparisons to Trump are inevitable: Attack. Create phony issues. Counter-claim. Bully. Use the press, and the Mafia. And when under pressure, wrap yourself in the American flag.
Cohn saw Donald Trump as a protégé. “I have the same crazy fight in me that he has,” he said.
The fact that we learn that Cohn collected miniature frogs and stuffed animals doesn’t serve to make him more human.
“The type of political environment we have today, Cohn set in motion,” the film suggests.
“Where’s My Roy Cohn” opens October 18 in Berkeley, San Francisco, and San Rafael and is playing across the country.
(Editor’s Note: To learn much more see below.)
C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry and produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and has written a weekly column forthe Piedmont Post for 13 years. She has also written for EatDrinkFilms. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield is former president and board member of the California Attractions and Parks Association, and also serves on the boards of Visit Oakland and the Lake Merritt/Uptown Business Improvement District and is on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free monthly movies in Oakland and Piedmont. C.J. says, “Documentaries make me a better person.”
Vanity Fair Editor turned film director Matt Tyrnauer and partner Corey Reeser website.
Academy Conversation with director Matt Tyrnauer.
New York Times feature on Matt Tyrnauer.
Nicholas von Hoffman’s “The Snarling Death of Roy. M. Cohn” for Life. (March 1988)
“Roy Cohn and the Making of a Winner-Take-All America” by Naomi Fry in The New Yorker. (September 25, 2019)
“The Original Donald Trump” by Frank Rich (April 30, 2018) New York is a fascinating exploration of Cohn’s life and includes excerpts from the personal notebooks of Christine Seymour, a switchboard operator in Cohn’s office.
“The Architect of Trump’s Strategy on Impeachment- Roy Cohn is the link between the president’s habit of deception and the GOP’s use of fearmongering” by Brian T. Brown in The Washington Post (October 15, 2019)
Many documentary and dramatic narrative features have been made about the Red Scare and this listing is fascinating. (Last updated 2011)
Below are a few examples.
A perfect companion piece to WHERE’S ROY COHN? is Emile de Antonio’s POINT OF ORDER. You can watch it complete below.
CITIZEN COHN– 1992 dramatic feature starring James Woods as Cohn and directed by Frank Pierson.
George Clooney directed a film about Edward R. Murrow and Joseph McCarthy, GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK.
Edward R. Murrow’s final reply to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s “See It Now” appearance – April 13, 1954
“Don’t Mess with Roy Cohn” a classic piece of journalism by Ken Auletta that originally ran in the December 1978 issue of Esquire but is still highly relevant.
Jim Zirin interviews author Auletta about Cohn.