“He was like a caged animal,” says one of the many talking heads interviewed in Matt Tyrnauer’s Where’s My Roy Cohn?. And with this, right at the beginning of the film, the sick mythologizing of Cohn begins. Tyrnauer seems, rightly, to detest his subject but also to revel in that abhorrence. Treating Cohn as someone you love to hate turns him into a movie villain and turns Where’s My Roy Cohn? into something the late monster would likely have enjoyed watching.
Tyrnauer traces Cohn’s journey through a half century of American politics like a satanic Forrest Gump. First grasping power as a trusted aide to Senator Joseph McCarthy and eventually befriending Donald Trump before dying in 1986, Cohn’s once-singular brand of solipsistic, swaggering bullshit has increasingly become the poisonous engine of right wing American politics, vaulting idiots like Roger Stone to positions of prominence and resulting in the disastrous presidency of Trump himself.
Clearly, I’m editorializing; a movie review is, by its nature, a matter of opinion. But the connection between Cohn and President Trump is not exactly subtext in Where’s My Roy Cohn?. Even before he enters the picture, every criticism aimed at, for instance, McCarthy is couched in terms that would describe the president. Both are blustery demagogues whose appeal stems from everywhere that intellect doesn’t and who rely on tribalist ignorance to stir up anger and point it toward the ends that serve them.
Unfortunately, Tyrnauer isn’t above similarly superficial propaganda. When he alleges Cohn’s ties to organized crime (which, based in truth or not, Where’s My Roy Cohn? does little to back up), Tyrnauer makes sure to include a graphic photo of a slain mafioso. Is he implying that Cohn killed the man? Or is empty sensationalism?
Speculation continues apace when we get to Cohn’s homosexuality. Not that it was ever in question; despite Cohn never saying as much publicly, his romantic and sexual life is well-documented. Still, the implications of Cohn’s feeling toward fellow McCarthy staffer David Schine–on whose behalf Cohn argued for special treatment after being drafted, leading to the Army-McCarthy hearings that essentially ended the senator’s career–come off as sneering conjecture, not that different from the same offered up by the Army’s attorneys.
There are plenty of reasons to hate Cohn. But, by wrapping those up alongside negative connotations about homosexuality and by cherry-picking sound bites like Michael Moore, Tyrnauer overplays a good hand. Were I the type of person who supported President Trump or Senator McCarthy–the type of person who defines himself by his grudges and who perceives fairness to be an attack on his freedom–Where’s My Roy Cohn? would likely only strengthen my convictions.