Release Date(s)2019 (December 17, 2019)
Studio(s)Altimeter Films/Sony Pictures Classics (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: B
[Editor’s Note: The subject of this documentary is obviously political in nature. As such, readers should note that any views presented in either the film or this review are those of the filmmaker and the reviewer alone.]
Roy Cohn, the lawyer who made headlines from 1951 through to his death in 1986, is the subject of the recent documentary Where’s My Roy Cohn? Featuring archival footage from newsreels, vintage TV interviews, home movies, and new interviews, the film presents a portrait of the man known as a political puppeteer representing the darkest part of politics. An amazing manipulator who insinuated himself into the circles of the rich and powerful, he had no conscience and rose repeatedly from the ashes of defeat.
The film covers major events in Cohn’s life—as assistant prosecutor in the Rosenberg spy trial, as avid foe of the “communist menace,” as Senator Joseph McCarthy’s adviser in the Army-McCarthy hearings, as lawyer to big-time mobsters, and as mentor to Donald Trump.
Having helped Trump with building Trump Tower in Manhattan by brokering a deal with the mobsters who controlled the cement industry in New York, Cohn became Trump’s lawyer, fixer, and solver of innumerable problems. Trump adopted Cohn’s credo “never admit wrong and never apologize.” The film makes a clear connection between Cohn’s modus operandi and the way President Trump uses Twitter to get his messages directly to his base unfiltered by the press, alters facts or lies outright to his personal advantage, demands unswerving loyalty, and flouts longstanding norms of behavior.
Director Matt Tyrnauer goes back to 1927 to provide background on the kind of man Cohn became. His uncle owned the Bank of the United States. When the Great Depression hit, there was a run on the bank, the Jewish-owned bank went under, depositors lost their money, and Cohn’s uncle was sent to prison. The family’s social shame was deep. This contributed to Cohn’s unorthodox way of operating to “settle the score” with a government that had brought shame to his family.
A major sequence is devoted to the Army-McCarthy hearings. Cohn was attracted to young David Schine, heir to a hotel fortune and, when Schine was drafted, tried to get him special treatment, using the Senate as his tool. The televised hearings were watched by 30 million Americans and were instrumental in putting an end to Joseph McCarthy’s influence.
After his mother’s death Cohn, a closeted homosexual, altered his lifestyle to include the company of young men but still remained closeted, leading a double life. He was eventually disbarred for defrauding and stealing money from clients. Many of his friends abandoned him. Late in life, he refused to admit that he was suffering from AIDS and never acknowledged his homosexuality.
The film is especially timely because it contrasts the arc of Cohn’s rise to prominence and power with that of Trump. The adage “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it” is an apt theme. In fact, the title of the documentary comes from a comment Trump made when he was unhappy with his first Attorney General, Jeff Sessions who, Trump felt, wasn’t protecting him.
The Blu-ray release from Sony Pictures, featuring 1080p resolution, is presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The picture quality varies due to the various archival sources. Newsreel footage contains scratches and dirt specks, and some color home movie footage is slightly out of focus and scratched. The best quality is in the newly-recorded interviews of various “talking heads” offering remarks and reminiscences about Roy Cohn. Editing is thoughtful. In one sequence, Roy Cohn makes comments about the dangers of communism. Director Trynauer blends this with a speech by then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover making essentially the same speech. In other segments, he juxtaposes vintage footage with contemporary takes on historical events. The film is, for the most part, chronological, except for a flashback to 1927 to provide background on events that shaped Cohn’s personality, drive, and determination to win at all costs. Trynauer incorporates water imagery to give the documentary “breathing space,” to underscore Cohn’s love of his yacht and the beach, and represent freedom.
The soundtrack is English 5.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio. Subtitle options include English, French, and Spanish. In a few segments, a recording of Cohn being interviewed is played as a tape recorder’s reels turn. Subtitles are shown to make sure the less-than-perfect sound is understood. Modern interviews are clear and distinct, but some of the archival footage is beset by ambient noise and/or poor recording equipment. Director Trynauer uses classical music, particularly Ravel’s Bolero, to accompany dramatic moments. Lorne Balfe’s score is used throughout to bridge sequences, but never overwhelms the visuals.
Bonus features include an audio commentary, a Q&A with director Matt Trynauer, and a set of previews.
Audio Commentary – The commentary is shared by director Matt Trynauer and producer Marie Brenner. Developing and making the film was a “two-year adventure.” The project came about when Trynauer was working on his previous film, Studio 54. He came across lots of archival material on Roy Cohn, who was the lawyer for Studio 54. Brenner was doing research on Cohn for an article in Vanity Fair, so they joined forces. Cohn mastered the art of the talk show, appearing on many throughout his life. Roger Stone gave a terrific interview before a gag order was imposed on him by the court. Three cousins of Cohn were interviewed. The early part of the film sets up the paranoid political atmosphere of the Cold War and the McCarthy Era. The Rosenberg trial was traumatic for the Jewish community. Though Ethel was not involved in spying, Cohn urged the judge to give her the death penalty along with her husband, Julius. Referring to Cohn’s many defeats, Trynauer refers to him as “the vampire who pulls the stake out of his own heart.” By suing the Justice Department in a case involving Trump, Cohn grabbed headlines. Donald Trump “inhabited Roy Cohn” and his modus operandi.
Q&A – This session with director Matt Trynauer is moderated by Hilary Helstein, Executive Director of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival. Trynauer discusses the genesis of the film and explains the two types of documentary, cinema vérité and archival. Where’s My Roy Cohn? is archival. Cohn’s career began when newsreels were giving way to TV news coverage. The televised Army-McCarthy hearings are referred to as the first TV reality show. Eager to get the film out as soon as possible, Trynauer made it in a year and a half. Roger Stone was arrested on the day the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.
Previews – Theatrical trailers for the following films are included: David Crosby, Remember My Name, Maiden, Aquarela, Pain and Glory, Frankie, and The Traitor.
– Dennis Seuling