The latest gotcha doc goes from fear and loathing to snickers and gloating.
In Chinatown, Faye Dunaway made her first indelible impression with the line “I don’t make threats, my lawyer does.” You might expect a savvy Vanity Fair article to find use for that modish quote in a piece depicting infamous lawyer Roy Cohn as Senator Joseph McCarthy’s eager young HUAC sidekick who became a legendary fixer for Mafia figures and other rich and powerful New Yorkers. That the Chinatown quote never embellishes Where’s My Roy Cohn? is the only surprise in this stylish, politically predictable doc by former VF writer Matt Tyrnauer.
Cohn had figured prominently in Tyrnauer’s 2018 doc Studio 54 as a gay-friendly facilitator for nightclub owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, whose exploits perfectly fit Tyrnauer’s determination to make docs that flattered infamous or enviable celebrities. But this time Tyrnauer takes a different VF tactic, demonizing Cohn with straight-face, slick-page snark. Throwing shade at disgraced public figures is the new journalism.
Enmity for Cohn goes back to his part in the prosecution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg — a fabled point where leftist hero worship met collective paranoia, continuing in today’s hysterical political accusations. Using the Rosenberg controversy confirms Tyrnauer’s partisan savvy. His narrative utilizes an audiotape interview by high-profile reporter Ken Auletta to augment the case against Cohn. (We see old-time magnetic tape reels spinning in enigmatic limbo.) Auletta asks, “What makes Roy Cohn tick?” Answer: “Love of a good fight. Fighting against the powerful.” But it was the wrong “powerful,” and Tyrnauer’s doc defends the New York political status quo.
It’s Tyrnauer’s slant more than Auletta’s, setting up skepticism toward Cohn’s whip-smart answers about his private life and public work, from privileged Jewish scion to Beltway wunderkind and high-life gay blade. (The Rosenberg trial is presented as original sin — the old bugaboo of “self-hatred” — magnified by HUAC apostasy and flaunting his handsome WASP pet, G. David Schine.)
Commentary by several prominent New York journalists (Anne Roiphe, Roger Stone, Barbara Walters, Liz Smith), wistful yet disgruntled Cohn family members, and even an old lover give this film a peculiarly personal animus. Even Cohn’s heavy-lidded blue eyes are used against him. It comes down to one opinion: “When you met him, you knew you were in the presence of evil.” Case closed.
Where’s My Roy Cohn? typifies the “Gotcha” doc, a genre of the Fake News era that ignores objectivity and fairness in order to press politicized righteousness. Treating Cohn like a Hitler henchman, and a betrayer of his race, reveals the insensitivity that has overtaken Millennial journalism. Cohn’s career of besting opponents in argument — using the law to his advantage — is described as coming “from the darkest points of the American psyche.” Tyrnauer might have examined this threat through other figures in public history; he might’ve used a Chinatown clip to make a broader, deeper point. But, with a clip from the Sweet Smell of Success, he doubles down on gossip-lore, displaying blatant antipathy to his subject. Such bias is now considered perceptive because it follows a particular partisan perspective.
Leftists feel that anything they don’t like is right-wing, so Tyrnauer makes Cohn a bogeyman for contemporary political opposition. Skewering the now clearly prescient anti-Communist HUAC trials denies the actual Communist infiltration that was uncovered. The doc becomes laughably surreal when transcripts of the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings include observations that are obviously true and correct. Senator Joseph Welch’s famous “Have you no decency?” backfires in these days of cut-throat journalism and when Communism equals progressivism.
Worse than just another propagandistic doc, the very fashionableness of Where’s My Roy Cohn? denies the complexity formerly sought by political historians. That was Tony Kushner’s point in Angels in America when he imagined Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg coming face to face in the moral reckoning of the AIDS crisis that eventually killed Cohn. Kushner made their motives haunting (although always sentimentally siding with Ethel). Now that the fashionable Left has abandoned compassion — and complexity — this slicker-than–Michael Moore doc buries Roy Cohn as a paradigm for Machiavellian ruthlessness.
The motive behind all of this? Tyrnauer takes a long, anguished, haphazard route to get at President Trump, who once cited Cohn’s influence (his father employed Cohn more than 50 years ago). The Trump connection is intended to cinch Tyrnauer’s glossy tabloid legal brief, although it never shows that their association was as significant as Cohn’s signing on as Rubell and Schrager’s pit-bull lawyer in Studio 54. This makes Where’s My Roy Cohn? the most irresponsible movie since Vice witlessly slandered Dick Cheney. These films cater to prejudice and justify smugness.
It was a very meta experience to watch Where’s My Roy Cohn? surrounded by key New York liberal media elite gathered to quench their thirst for long-held prejudices, fear, and loathing; their snickering and gloating vibrated the screening room.