No doubt that Roy Cohn, the controversial lawyer who took no prisoners and mentored Donald Trump among other facts of his life, is a hot topic these days. This is the second feature documentary on Cohn I have reviewed in as many years, but it hits the mark because it is also a very personal take. Unlike the fine earlier Sony Pictures Classics release, Where’s My Roy Cohn? (a question taken from the mouth of Trump) from director Matt Tyrnauer, this HBO Documentary Films production comes from director Ivy Meeropol, granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the American couple accused, convicted and executed for giving American nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union in the 1950s.
The man who helped prosecute them, and then urged a death sentence, was none other than Cohn, making a name for himself as a hard-nosed and, for many, evil figure in the fabric of life in the 20th century. That was just the start for him, and it also represents the beginning of Meeropol’s interest in chronicling his life — one she finds as fascinating as it is repellent to her and her family. Thus we see the filmmaker weaving in her own connection to the subject of her film. The device tends to throw the structure a little off balance, but the personal touch is invigorating and brings a certain authenticity to this telling of the Cohn story. But there is so much more to tell, and Meeropol benefits from the same bounty of available archival footage and past interviews Tyrnauer had access to.
Of course there is Cohn’s active participation in Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch hunt of the ’50s, out of which the Hollywood Blacklist arose. This is covered in detail as well as Cohn’s rise in NYC societal circles; his position as a legal eagle for much of the mob; and, perhaps most important, because of its current relevance and impact his mentoring of the current occupant of the White House. The film points out that Cohn’s philosophy was never to apologize for anything, lie whenever you have to and basically create your own truths. Trump was a very good student and Cohn was instrumental in building his real estate career — particularly, as the movie points out, in the creation of the Trump Tower for which both men exercised ties to the mob, or at least so it is vividly implied.
Meeropol also takes her cameras to the resort town of Provincetown, MA, which has a largely gay population, in order to detail Cohn’s closeted sexuality. Through interviews with various personalities from a landlady to filmmaker John Waters to playwright Tony Kushner — who made Cohn a key character and heavy in Angels in America — a portrait of Cohn’s other life emerges as it all leads to his 1986 death from AIDS complications.
The film’s title comes ironically from a good place, the AIDS Memorial Quilt, where Cohn surprisingly is included with the epitaph: “Bully. Coward. Victim.”
This isn’t HBO’s first dance with Cohn as its 1992 narrative film Citizen Cohn, starring James Woods, was nominated for multiple Emmys. But putting him back in the spotlight at this time in our history, and showing his reach from beyond the grave and into the White House, is particularly chilling and sobering, which makes Meeropol’s highly worthwhile exploration into all things Cohn a journey worth taking now more than ever.
The film debuted at the New York Film Festival last fall and it premieres Thursday on HBO. Check out my video review with scenes from the docu at the link above. Do you plan to see Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn? Let us know what you think.
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