Coming on the heels of another documentary about Roy Cohn, this one directed and co-produced by Ivy Meeropol is more powerful and expansive and strikes from a different and personal angle. Meeropol is the granddaughter of executed Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, against whom Cohn was an unethical prosecuting attorney. The film gains strength by strong emphasis on the injustice done to the Rosenbergs, as well as the more usual excoriating Cohn for his work as assistant to Senator Joseph McCarthy in the anti-Communist hearings hysteria he worked up in the 1950s.
The documentary, a selection of the 57th New York Film Festival, is a Motto Pictures and Red 50 Production for HBO Documentary Films and is to premiere on HBO in the spring of 2020.
Meeropol deftly puts together the overall indictment of Cohn as a lawyer eventually disbarred, a fixer, a wielder of behind-the-scenes power, as well as one more point of importance the resonates today. He was a mentor of Donald Trump. The film director doesn’t have to do any excessive pounding to make us see similarities in the behavior of Cohn and the man occupying the White House today. (The other Cohn documentary is titled after a remark by Trump-—“Where's My Roy Cohn?”)
Meeropol’s film includes personal comments by her father, Michael Meeropol, son of the Rosenbergs, who talks about his own life and the point at which he came forward to fight to establish the truth about the injustice in the Rosenberg “conspiracy to commit espionage case,” which Cohn viciously pursued and exploited, even with illegal exparte conversions with trial judge Irving Kaufman to seek the death penalty that Kaufman delivered. The film stresses the injustice of the trial being pumped up to falsely claim that the Rosenbergs gave the Russians the so-called secret of the atomic bomb.
Among the fascinating discovered film clips that Meeropol includes is a panel discussion hosted by Jean Vallier, with Michael Meeropol brazenly confronting Cohn with his accusations against him and urging Cohn to sue him for libel. Cohn never took the challenge. The film also includes shots of Rosenberg sons Michael and his brother Robert as children visiting Sing Sing and Michael's memories about his feelings at the time, a clip of Julius’s mother wailing at the cemetery, and scenes of mass protest—all of which retain a strong emotional impact today.
Meeropol also is artistically creative, working in clips from Tony Kushner’s play “Angels in America,” in which Nathan Lane played Cohn as a mean-spirited bully dying of AIDS with the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg coming back to taunt him at his bedside.
The film reflects a tremendous amount of research and efforts to uncover previously unseen material. There are discussions between Cohn and journalist Peter Manso. Lawyer and professor Alan Dershowitz is candid and specific in denouncing the injustice done the Rosenbergs. Among those interviewed are playwright Kushner, director John Waters, Nathan Lane, columnist Cindy Adams, and various people who knew Cohn.
The film notes what a homophobe he was, although there apparently was no secret that he was having relationships with men, and to the very end he denied he was dying of AIDS.
I don’t quite understand the “Victim” in the film’s title. I guess Cohn saw himself as a victim when he was under attack, and I suppose you could say he was a victim of AIDS. Also, Donald Trump, for all of his enthusiasm about him, as the film notes, eventually distanced himself when he learned that Cohn had AIDS. But the real victims were Cohn’s victims.
However, to the credit of Meeropol, she strives in her film to get to know Cohn as a person and not just as an ogre—to examine what made him tick and how he built his position of power. As she previously demonstrated, for example, with her film “Indian Point” (see Search for review), she is a superb filmmaker who works hard to dig at the facts and put them into perspective. Her new film about Cohn continues to show her expertise and commitment and is well worth putting on your must-see list. Reviewed October 2, 2019.