A horrible man, Roy Cohn, the ruthless, crooked lawyer best known for serving as chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s communist-hunting crusade, receives contemporary consideration, in the age of Donald Trump, in a new documentary. Directed by Matt Tyrnauer, “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” (opening Friday at the Clay Theatre) is an absorbing real-life monster story.
Tyrnauer (“Studio 54”) follows Cohn from his upbringing in the Bronx through his dishonorable career to his disbarment and his death, from AIDS-related conditions that he claimed were from liver cancer, in 1986.
The film also examines how Cohn’s bullying and lying tactics live on, in the behavior of the current U.S. commander in chief.
An early segment introduces Cohn’s far from stellar parents, whose marriage resulted from a shady deal.
The family was Jewish, and Cohn was also gay — identities he forever tried to conceal, sometimes by hypocritical and heinous means.
The brilliant young lawyer with the cold blue eyes established himself as an anticommunist force during the Red Scare of the 1950s.
Ethics weren’t in his DNA. He communicated improperly with the judge who was overseeing the espionage case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to urge him to impose the death penalty. (Both died in the electric chair.)
Cohn would become most remembered, of course, for his work as McCarthy’s chief counsel during the senator’s notorious anticommunist investigations. Clips show Cohn fomenting paranoia in interviews and whispering into McCarthy’s ear at hearings.
For FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, Cohn, a closeted homosexual, helped conduct a hunt designed to eliminate homosexuals from government.
In ensuing decades, Cohn defended murderous mobsters, helped discredit two Democratic vice presidential candidates and stole from his own clients.
Tyrnauer also explores Cohn’s mentorship of Queens real-estate developer Donald Trump, who, in the 1970s, was fighting (substantiated) charges of racial discrimination.
Cohn’s methods — bullying opponents, smearing them with lies, scapegoating the powerless — made an impression.
Tyrnauer additionally covers Cohn’s social life, which included nights at Studio 54 and partying with A-listers.
Viewers expecting revelations about Cohn won’t find many here , and the desire of those A-listers to associate with Cohn warrants deeper examination.
But the archival clips contain choice material, and interviewees — Cohn cousins, journalists, a former boyfriend, his protege Roger Stone — provide knowledgeable, engaging commentary.
We hear the famed statement “Have you no sense of decency, sir?,” directed at McCarthy, and, by extension, Cohn, at a hearing. Elsewhere, Cohn says his tough demeanor indicates he isn’t gay.
With its engaging storytelling, the film is a relevant look at history that has repeated itself; it’s also character portrait that, while not penetrating, satisfyingly appeals to our fascination with evil.
Personal photogs and glimpses of Cohn’s private collection of — you’d never guess it — stuffed animals and frog figurines enrich the picture, whose title is a line Trump uttered when facing a crisis his legal crew couldn’t fix.
Where’s My Roy Cohn?
Starring: Ken Auletta, Roger Stone, Anne Roiphe, Marie Brenner
Directed by: Matt Tyrnauer
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes