A good documentary places events in context, and demonstrates how they are relevant today. Director Matt Tyrnaur has done just that in Where’s My Roy Cohn? as he did in a previous documentary, Citizen Jane: Battle for the City. In both productions, he effectively uses interviews and film clips to give the viewer an inside look at his subject and his/her essence and passions. The earlier film shows the power and effectiveness of a citizen taking on a respected figure (Robert Moses) whose plans for the infrastructure of New York City disregarded the importance of neighborhoods and the people within them. This film shows the influence of a man whose primary purpose in life is to exert control over others, one who wishes to be a “puppeteer”, as some said of him.
Tyrnaur’s vignettes about Roy Cohn’s early life clearly mark the path he was to take as an adult. Born of Jewish parents with connections in New York, he was adored/worshipped by his mother, who had aspirations for him to become important. In this, we see the first inklings of the split between image and reality. From childhood, he was the center of her attention, while his father was a judge and influential in Democratic Party politics at the time. He was extremely intelligent and facile in using it to his advantage. Agendas seem to have been set when his mother—who was not very attractive—was betrothed to his father in exchange for a judgeship. In this, we see the seeds of the darker side of his personality: The use of tactical ways in getting others to bend to his will and the absence of limits as to what he would do to win.
His “fame” began as Senator Joseph McCarthy’s chief aide, when he was known as a bully for getting information in any way he could, to the point where an Army General asks him, “Have you no decency?” From there, the absence of moral principles and ethics becomes even more apparent as he takes on corrupt clients from the underworld, woos the rich and powerful into his web, makes friends with certain members of the press, and advocates for Republican Presidents (Nixon, Reagan, Trump). Donald Trump was an easy mark for him to take on and instruct on defending himself: “Never apologize” “Never admit you’re wrong.”
In the end, this is a fascinating account of the making of a sociopath—e.g., superficial charm, above-average intelligence, rational, lack of remorse/shame, antisocial behavior—who was able to “develop” into someone who could deny his own sexuality and condemn others for it, let alone take pleasure in condemning the innocent. “I hate hypocrisy” is a statement he makes early on that gives a lie to his whole life.
There are little details in this film that epitomize who Roy Cohn was, such as a boat named “Defiant”, and his penchant for wrapping himself in the U.S. flag and declaring, “God bless America” illustrating the degree of his hypocrisy.
An illuminating picture of a true sociopath with difficulties in distinguishing between image and reality.