Who was Roy Cohn? Like a sort of dark-matter Forrest Gump, the lawyer, fixer, and Manhattan bon vivant always seemed to find himself at the center of some 20th-century cultural touchstone: the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg trial, the McCarthy hearings, the Mafia, the political rise of Ronald Reagan, Studio 54.
But why Roy Cohn now? Most likely because of his enduring impact, more than three decades after his death, as the attorney and later spiritual mentor to a young real estate developer named Donald Trump, whose working principles and ethical worldview (as it were) he shaped more than any single person, perhaps, than the future 45th U.S. President’s own late father, Fred.
“From the very beginning, he was flamboyant, he was ruthless, and always controversial,” Jane Pauley intones in a voiceover from a vintage news reel, one of dozens that director Matt Tyrnauer (Valentino: The Last Emperor) has access to, along with a plethora of talking heads — relatives, old friends, combatants, and sworn enemies, all of which Cohn appeared to have had in spades.
Even those strong words underplay a man who cut a swath through New York, and eventually the nation, with a sort of hammer-shark single-mindedness that belied both the limits of human endeavor and the available hours in a day. He did it with a shark’s amorality, too, following a code that boiled down, essentially, to Whatever It Takes.
Those extremes earned him grateful lifelong clients, and (often misbegotten) millions in his own bank account; it also led to terrible miscarriages of justice and in more than one case, an innocent person’s death. Cohn’s own passing, from AIDS-related illness, was also one of the central hypocrisies of his life; till the end, he never apologized, never explained, and never admitted to a single moment of regret.
Donald Trump was less kind, essentially abandoning him after his then still-secret diagnosis. Tyrnauer smartly doesn’t overplay the symbolism of their relationship, or work too hard to connect the dots; it’s all there to take or leave in the film’s shrewd, illuminating exploration of a man whose influence, for better or worse, may have far outdone even his wildest dreams. B+
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