Where’s My Roy Cohn?: Doc on Infamous Political Fixer Echoes in Time of Trump

By Thom Ernst

Rating: C+

One of the murky areas political history has left me to muddle through involves the collaboration between Senator Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn. I got the McCarthy and the blacklist bit down well enough; it’s Cohn where I always get tripped up.

Halston (left to right), Roy Cohn, Steve Rubell getting drunk, making nice.

Halston (left to right), Roy Cohn, Steve Rubell getting drunk, making nice.

Is Cohn the guy connected to the Rosenbergs’ executions? Why do I keep thinking he wrote “Yankee Doodle Dandy?” Of course, 10 seconds of research reminds me that it’s George M. Cohan who wrote “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and it’s Roy Cohn who help manufacture the witch hunt for political undesirables, otherwise identified as HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee).

Director Matt Tyrnauer’s (Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, Citizen Jane: Battle for the City) new documentary, Where’s My Roy Cohn? doesn’t allow for that confusion. It’s clear who Cohn is, and it’s clear where Tyrnauer stands on his opinion of Cohn. He doesn’t much like him.

Not more than five minutes of the film pass before the words “evil” and “Cohn” are paired up as naturally as “ping” and “pong.” Perhaps not liking Cohn is a given. Perhaps he is readily understood as one of our recent generation’s most villainous public figures. He is, at least, one of our recent generations’ most colourful political players of his day, and that’s saying a lot considering it’s a stage shared by McCarthy, Hoover, Nixon, and a whole host of mob bosses.

Where’s My Roy Cohn? is reportedly a phrase uttered by Donald Trump who was mentored (and seemingly adored) by Cohn. The Trump connection sets the film up for all kinds of comparisons between then and now, including the polarizing of public opinion on hotbed issues. At times the film appears to exist for the sole purpose of furthering demonizing the Trump administration.

There are references to Cohn and Trump's mob connections, as well as their tactical methods of fearmongering, and their public alienation of marginalized groups. The irony here is that Cohn was understood to be part of a marginalized group. Cohn, though he never directly affirms or denies it, was gay. Cohn’s sexual orientation is an issue only because of his public anti-homosexual stance; a position the film makes even more damning by opening with Cohn commenting on his hatred for hypocrisy.

Tyrnauer builds his film out of archival footage of Cohn from newsreels and talk shows featuring Tom Snyder, Gore Vidal, Larry King, and Mike Wallace plus a series of talking-head interviews with business associates, relatives, journalists and an ex-lover. It’s all very interesting and entertaining stuff and for those of us who can’t differentiate between Roy Cohn and George Cohan, it can be informative.

But Tyrnauer’s film doesn’t seem to trust its material enough to allow the power of the stories to unfold without a constant hammering of a B-level-journalism music soundtrack — the kind best-suited for tabloid news programs. And the film’s unwavering criticism of Cohn (however warranted it might be) reduces an otherwise gripping biographical story into a sensationalized television-ready expose.

Where’s My Roy Cohn? Directed by Matt Tyrnauer. Opens October 4 at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox and in Vancouver; opens October 11 in Montreal; and expands throughout the fall in other cities.