(during all of this week, Screen Comment’s Eric Althoff gives readers his take on the choicest films from the 2020 crop of AFI Docs, the world’s premier documentary film festival which took place online this year due to the coronavirus)
He was one of the most famous fixers of the last century, he rubbed elbows with everyone from Joseph McCarthy to then-real estate tycoon Donald Trump. But Roy Cohn, the pugnacious New York attorney who took on a rogue’s gallery of clients and touted conservative principles, was a closeted gay man whose private life was far from what he espoused publicly.
Cohn’s appearance in the American firmament goes back to the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of being Soviet spies and summarily executed. Cohn was there to prosecute the case, and his next stop in Washington was working with McCarthy to rout out Americans accused, falsely or otherwise, of being communists. Most of the accused were Jews, as was Cohn himself, but he saw no hypocrisy in this.
Nor did he apparently see much other hypocrisy in his public life, where he took on clients from the New York mob and Claus Von Bulow, and cozying up to the eighties conservatives—all the while living a double life at Studio 54 and at massive parties in Provincetown (his introductions of power brokers were legendary, including a young Trump to Roger Stone and Paul Manafort.)
Much of this is known, but what makes the film most compelling is that the director, Ivy Meeropol, is the granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and a good deal of her film focuses on her father and uncle’s efforts to, if not clear their parents, then at least say that Cohn railroaded them in court.
The documentary’s perhaps best moment is a freshman congressman of 1980 trying to fast-track the U.S. citizenship of a Laotian pilot who was helping U.S. officials locate POWs and MIAs from the Vietnam War. One call to Cohn, and the pilot’s citizenship was made manifest. That’s the kind of reach this schemer and fixer possessed at the height of his powers.
Yes, much of the later part of the running time is devoted to Cohn’s seeing Trump as a man who “will do great things,” and the point is made a bit too obviously. But the doc shines more so in comparing Cohn the man to “Roy Cohn” the character whom Tony Kushner wrote into “Angels in America,” a closeted lawer dying of AIDS—the same disease the real-life Cohn ultimately contracted.
One can’t help but read the news and ask aloud “How the hell did we get here?” The roads were numerous, but the puppetmaster most responsible might well have been Cohn.
Screens June 18th at AFI Docs and debuts on HBO June 19th at 8 p.m.