They say you can find some positive feature about every person. But did they ever meet Roy Cohn?
The famed political fixer, who first became notorious in the 1950s as Sen. Joe McCarthy’s lawyer and right-hand-hatchet-man, is a hard case to redeem. A new documentary, “Where’s My Roy Cohn?”, doesn’t generate much sympathy for the devil, but it does confirm that Cohn’s direct influence is still being felt today.
The title is credited to a lament by Donald Trump, regretting the absence of his longtime mentor. The two men met in the early 1970s, when the Trump family business was being sued by the Department of Justice for racial discrimination at Trump properties.
Cohn advised Trump to launch a counter suit — a ludicrous gesture, but it gummed up the works for a while, which was the point. Trump eventually lost the case, and promptly declared victory, a lesson from Cohn’s playbook.
The film, directed by Matt Tyrnauer, speeds along in standard docu-profile fashion. It comes to the Trump material fairly late in the story. Before that, we get the highlights of Cohn’s career: the Communist-hunting McCarthy years, his involvement with Mafia figures, his partying at Studio 54. Clients included the Catholic Archdiocese of New York and Rupert Murdoch.
The movie gets surreal at times — like when former Trump campaign adviser and Cohn protege Roger Stone, currently awaiting trial, makes a snide comment about Cohn’s poorly executed facelifts. Stone is an expert on that subject (and apparently unaware of the adage about people who live in glass houses).
Cohn died in 1986, from AIDS complications. Yet his reputation lived on, in part thanks to Tony Kushner’s 1991 AIDS play “Angels in America,” in which Cohn — who never acknowledged being gay — is portrayed as a larger-than-life character of near-satanic intensity.
In a weird way, Cohn’s early death (at 59) bailed him out. He had just been disbarred for his flagrantly corrupt behavior, and he’d run out of ways of bamboozling the taxman.
The documentary includes interviews with Cohn in various parts of his life. Asked what was most important to him, he replies, “the fight,” and “winning.” Loftier ideals were for suckers — Cohn was out for himself, and devoted to self-gratification.
You won’t feel sorry for Roy Cohn. This is a Scrooge story without a Christmas morning, a stark portrait of someone who traded in his soul for the vacant exercise of “winning.”
“Where’s My Roy Cohn?” (3 stars)
Documentary portrait of Roy Cohn, a notorious “fixer” whose career included being Joe McCarthy’s sidekick and Donald Trump’s mentor. The movie doesn’t change much to lighten the general view of this widely disliked man, who says he valued “winning” above any other goal.
Rating: PG-13, for subject matter
Opening Friday: SIFF Cinema Uptown