EXCLUSIVE: Altimeter Films is in production on Don’t Mess With Roy Cohn, a documentary that explores the long-range impact of Roy Cohn and makes the case that Cohn’s polarizing strategies set the stage for the rise of President Donald Trump. Pic covers Cohn’s early days as right-hand man to Senator Joseph McCarthy to his growth into the quintessential New York City power broker and attorney for myriad clients that included the future U.S. president. The film contextualizes Cohn’s influence on American politics, since the 1950s. As a recent Vanity Fair story by docu producer Marie Brenner posits: “Donald Trump and Roy Cohn’s ruthless symbiosis changed America.”
The film’s directed by Matt Tyrnauer and produced by Tyrnauer and Corey Reeser’s Altimeter Films, and Brenner, in association with Wavelength Productions. Lyn Lear, Jenifer Westphal, Lynn Pincus, Ernest Pomerantz, and Elliott Sernel are exec producers and Norman Lear is a financier.
Cohn’s first high profile exposure came as prosecutor in the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg espionage trial. The filmmakers said it was he who pushed for the death penalty, especially for Ethel. Later, Cohn served as McCarthy’s chief counsel during the senator’s Communist witch-hunts. The investigations brought Cohn notoriety as the pugnacious young lawyer whispering into McCarthy’s ear, seen in national TV coverage and he soared to prominence with the TV show The McCarthy Hearings. Cohn later said, “People are bored; they want entertainment.”
The filmmakers draw clear lines to the rise of Cohn and that of Trump, on the basis that entertainment would prove to be the vehicle for both men to achieve political power. Trump met Cohn in the 1970s, when the Trump clan was being sued by the Justice Department for housing discrimination against African American tenants. Cohn’s advice to his young protégé: “Tell them to go to hell and fight the thing in court.” As Trump noted, he ultimately settled the case, admitting no wrongdoing.
The film will argue that Cohn’s playbook and master manipulation of the media defines the political culture of the 21st century. He was instrumental in developing the genre of spectacle, now fueling right wing demagogic and racial dog-whistle politics.
Said Tyrnauer: “I see so many political nightmares of our distant past alarmingly being reprised in our political present. This film connects the dots, which lead, repeatedly, to Roy M. Cohn. This film shines on a light on a master of the darkest political arts, whose diabolical mind has altered the political landscape for generations. He could have been a footnote, but now his influence cannot be ignored.”
Said Lyn and Norman Lear: “Recently, we saw an old clip of a frustrated Donald Trump exclaiming needily: “Where is my Roy Cohn?” Here in Matt Tyrnauer’s commanding, full-throated documentary is the Roy Cohn our president was, perhaps still is, starving for.“
Altimeter’s recent docus include the Sundance pic Studio 54, and Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, a look at Hollywood’s hidden sexual past in the pre-Stonewall era; Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, about author and urban activist Jane Jacobs; Jean Nouvel: Reflections, and Valentino: The Last Emperor, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival and was short-listed for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. The company next tackles Once Upon a Time in Beverly Hills, which Tyrnauer—former Editor-at-Large and current contributing editor at Vanity Fair—will direct based on his Vanity Fair article; and Home, a 10-part documentary series for Apple.