Director Matt Tyrnauer is back with his latest in a string of successful documentaries — this time taking on the towering figure that is Roy Cohn. A lawyer known for his cutthroat tactics and backdoor deals, Cohn had a major influence on American conservative politics, assisting Joseph McCarthy during the second Red Scare and raising up the likes of Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump. Cohn was also, as “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” sets out to prove, a walking contradiction: a Jewish man distancing himself from his heritage, a closeted gay man who helped root out gay men and lesbians in the federal government and a self-proclaimed hater of hypocrisy.
The film begins with a pivotal moment in Cohn’s life — the trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg in 1951, which launched Cohn’s career and cemented his reputation for ruthlessness. From there, the documentary cuts back to Cohn’s childhood and follows a standard linear narrative until the time of his death. In less capable hands, this linearity has the potential to feel dry and slow, but instead the story is propelled forward by fast-paced editing and a captivating score.
Somewhat less captivating is the narration that accompanies the film. The ensemble of talking heads consists mostly of people from Cohn’s inner circle, including family members, lawyers from his firm and a former boyfriend. One would assume that Tyrnauer would take advantage of these close ties, eliciting stories of their personal relationships with Cohn and how they were affected by him.
Many commentators, however, appeared reluctant to insert themselves into the story, especially those who should have been in a position to comment on Cohn’s mindset. Rather than delve into their personal connections to Cohn, they confined themselves to vague statements about his ruthlessness and hypocrisy, with the occasional personal or professional anecdote.
Perhaps the closest the viewer gets to understanding Cohn’s influence comes from a speaker who calls him “totally ugly” and “totally charismatic.” Even this comment, however, is dancing around the subject that ought to be addressed: What was it that made Cohn so charismatic in the first place? Why did these people who condemn him now choose to follow him back then? These are the questions that viewers are forced to quietly ponder in their heads as they listen to yet another story about his ethical misconduct.
Of course, this hesitance to complicate the story is understandable. There’s a fine line between humanizing a historical figure and outright pardoning them, and with someone as corrupt as Cohn, it’s smart to steer clear of that line entirely. While the commentators still attempt to connect his cruel behavior to a troubled psyche — citing his internalized homophobia and difficult relationship with his mother — the film seems to overcompensate for this by portraying Cohn as a sort of storybook villain, the great American boogeyman, rather than a symptom of something larger. As a result, the documentary feels disjointed and unsure of its own moral message.
Perhaps a wiser use of the film’s screen time would have been to go beyond Cohn himself to consider the society that allowed him to take power or the ways in which his legacy continues on. After all, publicity around the film capitalized off of his connection to President Donald Trump, who turned to him for legal advice in the ‘70s and became his trusted friend. Disappointingly, however, the story cuts off long before Trump’s entry into politics and without a mention of the incident that gave the documentary its name. In his commitment to a clean birth-to-death narrative, Tyrnauer sacrifices an opportunity to demonstrate the relevance, perhaps even the purpose, of his own film.
Ultimately, “Where’s My Roy Cohn” is a well-made film that fails to provide anything of substance. It presents itself as flashy, fast-paced and dramatic, but in the end, it shies away from making any sort of statement beyond the obvious. It’s not incorrect to say that Roy Cohn was an evil man, but unless a filmmaker is going to dive into the gritty causes and effects of that villainy, there’s no real reason to put him back in the spotlight.