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‘Where’s My Roy Cohn?’: A thorough portrait of a ruthless real-life villain

The documentary’s impressive stash of archival footage makes the case that Cohn helped shaped today’s dirty-tricks politics.

Lawyer Roy Cohn shares a laugh with a client, the young Donald Trump, in a photo from “Where’s My Roy Cohn?”
Sony Pictures Classics

When I told a friend earlier this week I had just seen a documentary about Roy Cohn, he said, “I’m not sure I want to know any more about that man than I already know.”

Point taken. Cohn is one of the most notorious and infamous real-life American villains of the 20th century. His ruthless and corrupt misdeeds, his flamboyant lifestyle and his obsessive craving for the spotlight made him a media magnet from the early 1950s until his death in 1986.

Cohn’s story has been chronicled in volumes of non-fiction pieces, and everyone from Al Pacino to Nathan Lane to James Woods to a host of brilliant stage actors has portrayed fictionalized versions of Cohn on Broadway, on TV and in the movies.

And yet with all we know about this chillingly amoral, blackhearted man, “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” still serves as a thorough and insightful history lesson that makes a convincing case that among other sins, Cohn was one of the early architects of bitterly divisive, take-no-prisoners, make-no-excuses, dirty-tricks politics.

“If you were in his presence, you knew you were in the presence of evil,” says one of the many Cohn associates and relatives interviewed in the documentary.

No one has a kind word to say about Cohn as a person, although more than a few former colleagues note he was a brilliant lawyer (he graduated from Columbia Law when he was just 20) would could dazzle judges and juries and was a master at getting favorable plea deals for nefarious clients such as the mob boss John Gotti.

“Where’s My Roy Cohn?” benefits from a treasure trove of archival film footage of Cohn, who first found the spotlight in 1951 when he was just 23 and was one of the prosecutors of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were tried and convicted of espionage and executed. (In an interview years later, Cohn says he would have happily pulled the electric chair lever.)

A few years later, Cohn was the chief counsel constantly whispering in Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s ear — but after the Army-McCarthy hearings effectively put a stop to McCarthy’s demagoguery, Cohn cut ties with McCarthy and returned home to New York City to set up private practice.

The New York City of 1955, we’re told, was rife with corruption and dominated by mob rule, making it “Candyland” for one Roy Cohn.

Interviewees ranging from legendary gossip columnist Liz Smith to a former boyfriend of Cohn’s to various cousins and fellow attorneys to Roger Stone (identified as a “protégé of Cohn,” ugh) share memories of their experiences with Cohn, who consistently skirted the law (and eventually was disbarred) as he built a reputation as a powerful shark who would just as soon destroy you as step over you if you got in his way.

Director Matt Tyrnauer occasionally overdoes it with the ominous, intrusive score, but he does a stellar job of patching together clips and photos chronicling Cohn’s attention-getting antics, from his friendships with all kinds of celebrities (not to mention Ronald and Nancy Reagan) to his constant presence at hot nighteries such as the Stork Club and 21, to his TWO Rolls-Royces — not to mention all those handsome young men he hired as drivers, yacht captains, assistants, etc., etc.

You might be surprised to learn Cohn’s family founded Lionel Trains — and Cohn eventually acquired control of the company and ran it into the ground. Or that he was once engaged to Barbara Walters, who knew Cohn was gay and they would never actually marry.

You probably know Cohn befriended and became legal counsel to a young Donald Trump, a match made in, well, something decidedly lower than heaven.

As Cohn himself acknowledges in an audiotaped interview, he had zero empathy for his fellow human beings, and was incapable of even understanding that basic level of caring and decency. He never apologized for anything. He worked the media for his own gains and to the detriment of his foes, the truth be damned. He lobbied for years against gay rights. Even when he was dying, he looked Mike Wallace in the eye on national television and said no, he wasn’t a homosexual, and no, he did NOT have AIDS.

The lies and deceit started when Cohn was quite young, and never stopped until he was gone.