Ask anyone who took American history in high school if they have ever heard of Roy Cohn, and you may get blank stares. Of course, those who lived in the United States during the sensational attorney’s controversial career should recall the name, but otherwise, this immensely powerful, remarkably influential, and at times, terribly harmful figure in American politics has mostly been kept in the dark, hidden away in a backlog of national figures despite the tremendous effects he’s had on the country.
The son of a New York City judge, Roy Cohn was born in the year 1927. After a Jewish upbringing in the Bronx, he received a BA and JD from Columbia University and made a name for himself as a prosecutor for the U.S. Department of Justice. He was particularly successful in locking up Communists and soon became a close member of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s counsel.
For the next few decades, he had vast, yet subtle influence over American politics, informally advising presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and even representing a young Donald Trump in a business case. He stood as a pillar of xenophobia and homophobia, ingraining such values into our leaders, all in the interest of preserving a perverse image of the American way.
Indeed, Cohn is not the kind subject often discussed in a civics classroom. However, he is the perfect anti-hero for an enlightening and entertaining cinematic experience. With feature films like “Vice” focusing on Vice President Dick Cheney and docuseries like Netflix’s “The Family” about White House evangelist Douglas Coe, there is an obvious market for media that digs deep into the true stories of individuals manageing to garner and manipulate power without ever really entering the spotlight—individuals like Roy Cohn.
A Cinéma-Vérité view of Corruption as a Lifestyle
Sony Pictures Classics’ documentary “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” screened earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival and it is getting a wider release at the end of the week. Behind the camera is journalist-turned-director Matt Tyrnauer, who has previously proved his affinity for creating historical bio-docs with 2008’s “Valentino: The Last Empire” and 2016’s “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City.”
“Where’s My Roy Cohn?” of course places the attorney’s controversial work with American politicians at the story’s core, unveiling in striking detail the level of silent sway he managed to attain over some of the nation’s most public leaders. However, Tyrnauer’s film does not end there. The documentary does a thorough investigation into Cohn as a human being, starting at his childhood to try and understand the origins of his narrow American vision and his insatiable drive for preserving it.
The doc will also look at Cohn’s personal complications as an adult. Although the lawyer worked with Senator McCarthy to rid the federal government of homosexuals during the 1950s Lavander Scare, Cohn himself was allegedly attracted to men. Whether as a latent power trip or a hidden secret, Cohn reportedly had sexual relations with many men throughout his life, and suspicions surrounding his sexual orientation continued and even intensified after he died of AIDS in 1986.
The documentary will also view his career as more than just the facts. Continuing with the intimate approach, the movie will look at the personal relations he held with Washington’s most powerful people. It will investigate what happened behind closed doors between him and sitting presidents, and it will look at the master-apprentice dynamic that he held with Trump during the 1970s.
Evidently, there is more to Cohn than just the egregious effects he had on policy and national morale. For everything he did on paper, Roy Cohn was a human, and the human soul is a convoluted thing. He is definitely not an American hero.
In fact, one could even call him a villain, but as Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees, or Dick Cheney have proved before him, villains, especially ones that hold power in the palm of their hands, make for fascinating movie topics. And if “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” approaches the topic of Cohn well, maybe the audience will also be able to learn something about America along the way.
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