January 18, 2020

Roy Cohn Documentary Reveals the Rise of President Trump

Roy Cohn; Photo by James Meehan, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Unlike the many biographical documentaries that celebrate notable individuals’ monumental achievements and contributions to culture or society, “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” has a liar, a cheat and an all-around despicable human being as the subject.

Cohn was a brilliant, ruthless lawyer who began his career witch-hunting Communists — many of them Jews like himself — as Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel. He pushed for and obtained the death penalty for spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, despite lack of evidence. He crusaded against gays in government in the Army-McCarthy hearings, although he was a closeted homosexual — something he denied until the day he died of AIDS in 1986.

He conspired to get Ronald Reagan into office and keep Geraldine Ferraro out of it. He defended mafiosos including John Gotti and Carmine Galante, and defrauded clients, for which he eventually was disbarred. But most significantly, according to filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer, “Roy Cohn is the creator of Donald Trump.”

As the documentary depicts, Cohn met the young real estate developer in 1973 and became his adviser and mentor, teaching Trump how to hide evidence, destroy paper trails and always strike back with vehemence. Trump took those tenets all the way to the White House. Three decades after Cohn’s death, Cohn has left an indelible mark on U.S. politics. The film’s title is taken from an actual Trump quote.

In 2016, during the presidential election, Tyrnauer was making “54,” his documentary about the infamous New York disco Studio 54, at which Cohn frequently was photographed. Researching further, he was intrigued by the idea of the Cohn-Trump relationship, but never thought Trump would win the election. When it came to pass, he knew he had to tell the story.

 “Cohn did something no one has 

ever done, which is create a president from beyond the grave.”  — Matt Tyrnauer


“Cohn goes from being a very significant footnote in American history to being the Machiavelli of our time,” Tyrnauer told the Journal. “He was not afraid to transgress; break the law in the name of winning at all costs. When it came time to face whatever consequences caught up with him, he was willing to double down and hit back a hundred times harder, create diversions and rat out other people if necessary. He passed his philosophy on to Trump and gave him the methodology. Every day, you see Trump doing something that Cohn might have said or done 50 or 60 years ago. Cohn did something no one has ever done, which is create a president from beyond the grave.”

Tyrnauer knew he needed to make the movie quickly in order for a release during the 2020 election campaign process. “I believe that producing this film is a public service,” he said. “It’s not a movie about Donald Trump. But in another sense, every moment of it is about Donald Trump.” That said, he also wanted to explore other aspects of Cohn’s life and career, and emphasize the reach of Cohn’s influence “as the connector between the legitimate and illegitimate power structures of the United States — a less well-known story, but urgent to tell.”

Tyrnauer sought out rare archival footage, including obscure talk-show interviews featuring Cohn, and conducted interviews with journalists, historians and Cohn’s cousins. (Trump declined to talk.) He delves into Cohn’s family and upbringing to discover why an insecure, gay Jewish boy became so ashamed of his religion and sexual orientation that he targeted others like him. In the film, Cohn’s cousin calls Cohn “the definition of the self-hating Jew.”

Senator Joseph McCarthy covers the microphones with his hands while having a whispered discussion with his chief counsel Roy Cohn during a committee hearing, in Washington. Photo by Sony Pictures Classics; AP/REX/Shutterstock

“At the time, Judaism and Bolshevism were interchangeable, certainly in anti-Semitic circles,” Tyrnauer said. “Certain members of the Jewish community would compensate and say, ‘Not me. I’m not like those other Jews. I’ll show you how anti-Communist I am.’ Certainly, his role in the Rosenberg case raises a lot of questions. He denied the very essence of who he was, and it was not a victimless crime. He was a dangerous hypocrite, and the film does everything it can to call that out.”

Tyrnauer was raised in Los Angeles in a non-observant family of Ashkenazic Jews but considers himself an atheist. “My stepfather, who wasn’t Jewish and who I was very close with, was an atheist. I took after him,” he said. He also followed his stepfather, a producer of TV shows including “Columbo” and “The Virginian,” into the film world. 

Aside from “54,” Tyrnauer’s previous documentaries include “Valentino: The Last Emperor,” “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City” and “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood.” Also a journalist, he was on the masthead for 25 years at Vanity Fair, where he wrote an article headlined “Once Upon a Time in Beverly Hills,” which he’s now adapting for a scripted feature with Amazon. He’s also working on a narrative adaptation of “Citizen Jane” and “Home,” an architecture-themed docuseries for Apple+ TV.

As for his current documentary, Tyrnauer imagines his subject would be flattered. “I think he might like it because in his playbook, there was no such thing as bad publicity,” he said. He hopes audiences see Cohn for what he was. “This film debunks anything positive about Cohn that a casual observer might have concluded or misconstrued. I also want audiences to understand what a demagogue is, and how very vulnerable our society is to a clever, sociopathic narcissist who achieves the position of extraordinary power. We all have to be vigilant, educated, aware and ready to act. I hope this film serves as a primer to the public and awakens the fires of recognition in as many people as possible.”

“Where’s My Roy Cohn?” opens Sept. 20 in theaters.