A documentary by Matt Tyrnauer. Rated PG
The title of this timely documentary was once uttered by one Donald Trump, who learned his entire legal strategy—“Attack, attack, attack!”—on Roy Cohn’s knee. The future, um, president met the infamous attorney when the latter defended his father against the federal government in one of many suits against the Trump Organization for rampant racial discrimination. Like thousands of cases that followed, they were settled out of court, since Cohn’s other salient advice was “Never admit you’re wrong!”
The Trumpian part of this dystopian saga comes near the end, and it begins with a twist on the usual immigrant success story. Cohn’s parents were wealthy Europeans firmly ensconced in turn-of-the-century New York, minority division. But something in the young Roy’s makeup made him resent their liberal-capitalist world. Perhaps because he was short, Jewish, physically repellent (resembling Trump’s top baby-cager, Stephen Miller), and secretly gay.
Still, he thrived academically and quickly became a hotshot lawyer, making his name in the prosecution of the Rosenbergs for spying. He pushed for their execution, and his taste for blood soon led him to represent Senator Joseph McCarthy, who may or may not have shared a closet with Cohn and FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover. Together, they gleefully purged the State Department and then the entertainment industry of left-leaning ethnics. When the army refused to give special treatment to Cohn’s great paramour of the era, David Schine (who may have been straight), the flag-waving duo went after the military, which proved their undoing.
Cohn bailed before his boss went under (McCarthy soon drank himself to death), and then made the logical leap to defending top Mafiosi, baldly lying to juries and the press while enjoying the high life, complete with pool boys, all-male yacht crews, and assorted rough trade.
As veteran filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer (Studio 54, Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood) makes clear, through interviews with relatives, associates, and Cohn’s very few friends (Barbara Walters is notably absent), the master manipulator courted fame and social prestige, hanging around with Andy Warhol and, eventually, the younger Trump, who ultimately abandoned his notorious mentor when it became clear he was dying of AIDS.
It’s rare to encounter a detailed biography that doesn’t engender at least some sympathy for its subject. But in this case, fellow feeling must be reserved for the viewers who now inhabit the world that Cohn helped create: a place where only winning matters and there are always new alternatives to the facts. As far as humanizing details go, he did have an incredible collection of toy frogs.