As a filmmaker, Matt Tyrnauer gets around. His documentary subjects include a fashion designer (“Valentino: The Last Emperor,” 2008), urban activist (“Citizen Jane: Battle for the City,” 2016), high-end male hustler (“Scotty and the Secret Life of Hollywood,” 2017) , and higher-end disco (“Studio 54,” 2018). His latest, “Where’s My Roy Cohn?,” further shuffles the documentary deck — adding a joker who was definitely wild.
There’s never been anyone quite like Roy Cohn (1927-86), and thank goodness for that. The work of literature he’s associated with is Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” in which he figures as a particularly repellent character. “The Lord of the Rings” may be more pertinent. Cohn was a legal-eagle version of Gollum: endlessly compelling in his no-less endless awfulness. True, a ring of power didn’t obsess Cohn. Why bother with jewelry when there was the thing itself: impure and unsimple. That obsession led to his connecting one of the more bizarre collections of dots in 20th-century US history: the Rosenbergs, Joe McCarthy, the Mafia, Ronald Reagan, Barbara Walters, the archdiocese of New York, and (inevitably) young Donald Trump.
Louche and lizardy, Cohn was one of those post-imperial only-in-New-York characters. Planted at the intersection of influence and celebrity, he’d be at Studio 54 one night and in court the next morning (either as litigant or defendant). Cohn was also gay, not so much closeted as hiding in plain, catch-me-if-you-can sight. His default mode was defiance: of convention, of law, of truth. He looked like Caligula (those hooded eyes!) and acted like a brat. Put another way, he was tabloid catnip. All of which makes Tyrnauer’s documentary very lively.
The only child of an heiress and judge, Cohn was an outer-borough princeling, that borough being the Bronx. No one ever doubted his brains. At 20, he graduated from Columbia Law School. At 24, he was a prosecutor in the espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. This quickly led to his becoming McCarthy’s chief aide, which in turn led to the Army-McCarthy hearings, which in turn — there were a lot of turns to Cohn’s career — made him internationally famous, or infamous.
Returning to New York, Cohn entered private practice and reveled in his sordid reputation. It was good for business, after all, though his eventual disbarment wasn’t. As one of the documentary’s talking heads puts it, “He’s the only person I’ve met who actually enjoyed being indicted.”
Tyrnauer and his researchers have done a terrific job of gathering archival photographs and footage. A joint talk-show appearance by Cohn and Gore Vidal is part hallucination, part cage match. The roster of interviewees is extensive and varied. There are former associates (including an admiring Roger Stone), Brandeis historian Thomas Doherty, Cohn cousins (who have some of the most damning things to say), and such journalists as author Ken Auletta, Vanity Fair’s Marie Brenner, and The New York Times’s Sam Roberts.
Interspersed throughout the film are snippets from an interview Auletta did with Cohn toward the end of his life. It’s fascinating to hear Cohn speak in an unbuttoned fashion. Yet whenever there’s a clip Tyrnauer cuts to tape reels turning on a large recorder. It’s emblematic of how heavy-handed, even overblown, the filmmaking can get. Intercut with a discussion of Cohn’s homosexuality, for example, is footage from soft-core gay porn. The treatment generally of Cohn’s sexuality falls somewhere between the salacious and prurient. That contributes to the general liveliness, but not in a good way. The same is true of the overbearing score.
The biggest problem with “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” is the documentary’s attitude toward its subject: not its being critical (an uncritical approach to Cohn would be about as interesting as a daytime visit to Studio 54), but that it so thoroughly accepts his view of himself. Cohn wasn’t so much an ideologue or power broker (especially not that) as he was a brand specialist, and the brand he specialized in was Roy Cohn. He marketed an image of himself as ultimate insider and attack-dog attorney (accurate enough, except that canine ferocity works far better in kennels than courtrooms). The truth-in-advertising description of what Cohn sold was something quite different: smoke and mirrors. “He never gave up on his own myth,” the late gossip columnist Liz Smith says in the documentary. No one promoted that myth as effectively as he did. Until now, maybe: “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” repurposes his self-mythologizing for its own, only in reverse. The problem is that dark smoke and cracked mirrors are still smoke, still mirrors.
WHERE’S MY ROY COHN?
Directed by Matt Tyrnauer. At Kendall Square. 97 minutes. PG-13 (thematic content, some sexual material and violent images).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.