The last thing I feel like watching is a film about sleazy Roy Cohn. However, Matt Trynauer has given us an important documentary that reminds us how evil incarnate Cohn was, and will inform a new generation of the evidence. Cohn died of AIDS back in 1986, which is a long time ago from the perspective of those not even born then.
The title of the film, which can be attributed to a remark by President Trump, tells us a lot about Cohn in that Trump admires him. Consider who Cohn was. As the film shows in detail, he was an aide to Senator Joseph McCarthy in the odious hearings that destroyed reputations in promoting the red scare of the 1950s.
He was also an unscrupulous prosecutor in the conspiracy to commit espionage trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Morton Sobell. As journalist Sam Roberts points out in the film, Cohn had illegal ex-parte conversations with judge Irving Kaufman urging him to condemn the Rosenbergs to death, a sentence that shocked the world and led to mass protests.
Those examples show Cohn as a political horror. But the film also goes into his pile of assorted illegalities, which led to his eventual disbarment. We get a personal portrait of him via various interviews of those who knew him, and also via assorted film clips.
Cohn never admitted to being gay. He didn’t even admit to having AIDS, although that was the diagnosis of his death. The film recalls when he and David Schine, an assistant in the McCarthy hearings, traveled together and there were inferences of their being lovers, although there was never any evidence of that. Cohn got in trouble for seeking special treatment for Schine in the army.
The film does a basically comprehensive job in tracing Cohn’s ever-shady life, and following his trail as a power broker sought out by those who relied on him to get things done no matter how. One candid illustration is Cohn’s statement that it would have been simple to solve President Nixon’s problem that led to his resignation. Cohn says he could have just destroyed the tapes.
Director Trynauer’s film deserves to be seen as a vital historical document that contains lessons for today. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Reviewed September 22, 2019.