Bully. Coward. Victim. The Roy Cohn Story (2020) ★★★
Director: Ivy Meeropol
Streaming on HBO
The first time I heard of Roy Cohn was when I read Angels in America. He’s the play’s villain, lifted from real life, a ruthless fixer and corrupt lawyer who denies that he is gay but then uses his influence to obtain experimental treatments for HIV in order to prolong his life. Abusing power was Cohn’s thing: he started his career by tampering with evidence so that the Ethel and Julius Rosenberg would be sent to the electric chair for espionage. After the Rosenberg were executed, their children were adopted by the Meeropol family. Director Ivy Meeropol is the granddaughter of the Rosenbergs, and she is understandably interested in Cohn, this person who destroyed her family in order to show the world that he was tough on communism — and to gain personal notoriety.
Roy Cohn was clearly a terrible person, but it was still surprising, in interview after interview, to hear people characterize him, without a hint of exaggeration and often using theological language, as “the worst human being who ever existed,” “pure evil,” “the personification of evil,” “without conscience,” “Dracula,” and “destined for the 9th circle of Hell reserved for hypocrites.” Nevertheless, people were willing to work with him, because he was able to bring business their way — or because he gave them large quantities of cocaine. Cohn, in turn, used people for selfish reasons, the big one being money laundering. He refused to receive any income directly or even to use credit cards because he didn’t want to pay any taxes. His clients often paid him in real estate and art. One of his most prominent clients was a young real estate magnate named Donald Trump, who obviously noticed the “no income” strategy of tax avoidance and adopted it in his own business dealings.
The title of the documentary comes from a square in The Aids Memorial Quilt (pictured above.) The descendants of Roy Cohn, who are interviewed in this documentary (and who agree with everyone’s assessment of his evil nature), told Meeropol that it was one of the first squares that they encountered when they went to visit the quilt — an astonishing coincidence, given that the quilt covered acres of lawn:
Cohn’s descendants felt the quilt square was a cosmic reminder of their connection to evil. You see a lot of people struggling with their legacy in this documentary — the Rosenberg children, as they try to clear their mother’s name, and the various people who worked with Cohn. It’s depressing to see how many were willing to work and party with him even as they knew how corrupt he was. Aside from the Rosenberg children, John Waters and Tony Kushner come off as the documentary’s conscience. Waters was annoyed to see Cohn in Provincetown and tried to warn people off of him; Kushner, of course, immortalized him as one of theater’s most terrifying villains.
Meeropol shows clips of Nathan Lane’s portrayal of Cohn in Angels throughout the documentary and sometimes it left me wanting to watch more of Kushner’s play rather than another interview with someone who knew Cohn back in the day. That’s not a knock on the filmmaking, just an acknowledgement of the cumulative weight of the interviews. The repeated images of Trump and his operatives, Roger Stone and Paul Manafort, who were both proteges of Cohn, make it hard to brush off Cohn’s influence the Trump administration. I think I longed for Kushner’s play because some part of me wished he was just a fictional character, not a real person whose actions are still rippling through the culture.