In this new film, Tyrnauer’s technique is to move on from, rather than into, any given argument. We gloss and glide, forming an overall impression of Cohn’s dark soul along many fronts. I’m not saying that any of it is untrue; I am saying a character assassination of a dead man ought to have higher standards.
An example: Roy Cohn, aged 23, was one of the prosecutors of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were convicted in 1951 of giving atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The movie claims Cohn privately and improperly counselled the judge in the case, Julius Kaufman, to sentence the pair to death. “The government never had enough evidence to convict Ethel and yet they convicted her, sentenced her to death and killed her in the electric chair. And it was a deal that Roy Cohn helped engineer,” says journalist Sam Roberts.
You’ll have to Google him to find out that Roberts, a former editor at The New York Times, wrote a well-respected book about the case: why not just tell us who he is? The film then shows black-and-white footage of weeping women as the Rosenbergs meet their fate. Tyrnauer doesn’t bother with the now declassified Soviet files that suggest Ethel aided and abetted her husband’s spying, nor does he go far enough into the case to show how Cohn manipulated the verdict. We just have to take someone’s word for it.
Cohn, at least in death, offers a fat target. He was a piece of work. As a New York lawyer, he was prosecuted several times for his cavalier approach to the law, and eventually disbarred in 1986 for trying to get a dying millionaire to change his will. He persecuted homosexuals as part of the McCarthy witch hunts, ensuring many were fired from government jobs, even as he was besotted with his handsome protege, G. David Schine. Cohn always insisted he was not gay, up to and including the moment that he succumbed to the AIDS virus in 1986. Tyrnauer interviews a former boyfriend, Wallace Adams, who talks about Cohn’s taste for tall Nordic-looking men.
One question arising is whether Cohn was truly powerful, or simply the tool of the powerful – a suggestion that might be inferred from the title. He never achieved his ambition of becoming governor of New York. He certainly wielded power, but some of his adversaries wielded more, as he found when he went up against the US Army in the 1950’s. He told journalist Ken Auletta he had always hated hypocrisy and was willing to take up a fight against almost any adversary.
His clients as a private attorney included most of the five New York mob families, as well as the Catholic church and Rupert Murdoch. Ronald and Nancy Reagan treated him as a friend. In short, there is more than enough enigma to wrap him in mystery. The documentary does a reasonable survey of his faults and foibles, lining up those willing to plunge a knife, but it’s neither definitive nor detailed enough to satisfy even a minimum standard of proof.