411: A documentary about the real-life “most hated man in the US”, Roy Cohn.
Gotta say: I’ve only every known Cohn from films like Angels in America and Citizen Cohn. I knew he’d been an unmitigated bastard to anyone outside his personal circle, and had used the law to gain power and influence…until he was disbarred for ethics violations. And though being staunchly anti-gay in public – helming the “Lavender Scare” with Senator Joe McCarthy – died from AIDS related complications in 1986, Cohn denying that he had the disease to his last breath.
So why would we want a documentary about such a despicable man? Well, because those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it, and the after-effects of his career can still be felt, all the way up to the White House. Because our 45th President was a protégé of Cohn, and this doc highlights how the lawyer influenced a young Donald. You can see how Trump’s vitriolic attacks against anyone he feels that is against him – while switching topics and lying through his teeth – is straight from the Cohn playbook. Cohn’s drive for power by any means necessary is also mirrored in his protégé. That makes Cohn a compelling watch.
This film shows how the way justice is served, and government is run, has been negatively influenced by Cohn, and that alone is worth the price of admission. There’s also a deep dive into the man’s entire life. Cohn looks at his life from his first bribe in elementary school, to his witch hunts during McCarthyism and Hoover’s attacks on homosexuals, and his work with organized crime. And, of course, the doc digs deep into Cohn’s own homosexuality and death from AIDS. Interviews with family members, law associates, and others who knew him show all sides of Cohn, from his anti-Communist fervor to his sweet collection of stuffed frogs that took pride of place in his home.
The interviews are fascinating; “beyond machiavellian” “loved power” “master manipulator” “bully” “the definition of a self hating Jew” “demagogue” “a personality in disarray” and “a legend in his own mind” are words used by interview subjects. Some of these descriptives come from the mouths of his own family members, which surprised, and soothed, me. Trump adviser Rodger Stone tells some stories, and seems to look back on that time with a baffled joy. (Trump himself declined to be interviewed for the film.) Meanwhile, Cohn’s cousins pull no punches while lambasting their relative, and they’re the standouts of the film.
While you won’t learn any new information here in Cohn, you will get a deeper dive into the basics than I’ve ever seen before. Director Matt Tyrnauer does an excellent job compiling the vast amount of information he collected into an immensely watchable documentary. I especially enjoyed the look at Cohn’s young life, and how his ability to grift started almost as soon as he could talk. There’s a case to be made that his upbringing – with the strange mix of contempt and support he received from his mother – had a lot to do with how he saw and interacted with the world. But all in all it was Cohn’s life to lead. He could have been better. He chose not to be.