Roy Cohn was a deplorable piece of work in many aspects. Throughout his relentless pursuit of money and power, this evil and ambitious power broker casually ruined the lives of many people while also influencing numerous scumbag figures not so different from him, and his toxic legacy is still living well and alive in the American society even after his miserable death in 1986.
Although it does not give us a wide view on Cohn’s life and career like other recent documentary film “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” (2019), HBO documentary film “Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn” did a fairly good job of illuminating the dark sides of its loathsome but undeniably compelling human subject along with some personal elements to be appreciated. He was indeed a very bad person, but it is fascinating to observe his countless hypocrisies and contradictions, and you will come to understand why he can be regarded as not only a bully and coward but also a victim.
The first part of the documentary mainly revolves around a certain infamous trial which considerably boosted Cohn’s early legal career in the early 1950s. Although he was just a young Jewish lawyer who had just graduated from his law school and then began to work for the US Justice Department, Cohn impressed his superiors a lot as ready to do anything for bringing out the guilty verdict on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, a Jewish American couple arrested for espionage activities. For example, he had Ethel’s brother give a false testimony against her and her husband at the trial, and that was one of the major factors leading to the eventual execution of her and her husband in 1953.
After this notorious trial, Cohn came to work as the legal counsel for Senator Joseph McCarthy, and he and McCarthy had many showy moments for publicity during their vicious witch hunt for communists and any other potential subversive figures. Although he was gay in fact, Cohn openly persecuted homosexuals along with McCarthy just because homosexuals were deemed to be a serious problem for national security, and he went further with his hypocrisy as trying to get a certain very close friend/associate of his promoted in the US Army. I guess he probably wanted to demonstrate to others that he could be an exception as ruling over others with power, but that attempt eventually led to the public humiliation of him and McCarthy, whose political career was completely destroyed as a consequence.
After promptly resigning from his position under McCarthy, Cohn moved to his hometown New York City, and, what do you know, he soon rose from the bottom as acquiring some powerful allies and friends. As usual, he showed them that he is the one who would do anything for winning at the court, and he got rewarded a lot while doing many dirty things for solving their legal problems.
Around the late 1970s, Cohn got himself involved more with Ronald Reagan, and he subsequently found himself at the peak of his power broker career after helping Reagan getting elected as the US president in 1980. While he got more connected with the US government via several shady political operators such as Roger Stone and Paul Manafort, he became more involved with some of the most notorious figures in New York City, and one of them was a certain young rising real estate developer who is occupying the White House at present.
In the meantime, Cohn officially kept his sexuality in the closet, but he willfully threw himself into sexual pleasure whenever he could. For example, he frequented a popular disco club in the middle of Manhattan which was infamous for drug and sex, and he also often visited a beach town outside the city which was a haven for many gay people during that time. Usually accompanied with handsome blonde lads, he did not hesitate at all to satiate his sexual desire as going through one wild day after another, and it is no wonder that he later found himself infected with HIV virus.
As reflected well in Tony Kushner’s monumental play “Angels in America”, Cohn continued to stick to his hypocrisy even during his final years. Despite the growing rumor about his illness, he kept insisting that he was dying due to terminal liver cancer, but he was actually receiving an experimental AIDS treatment behind his back, while firmly objecting as usual to those federal laws guaranteeing the civil and human rights of sexual minority people. As a matter of fact, he was probably more devastated when he got disbarred not long before his death.
In the meantime, director/co-producer Ivy Meeropol gradually reveals her personal perspective on Cohn’s life and career. She is a granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and there is a small poignant moment when she and her uncle visit the Sing Sing Prison, where her grandparents were incarcerated until their eventual execution. Her father and uncle tried hard to clear their parents’ name, and they partially succeeded in the end (Although Julius was guilty as charged, his crime turned out to be not as serious as suggested at that time, while Ethel was innocent from the beginning), but there is still bitterness as her uncle reminisces about that dark time for him and his brother.
On the whole, “Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn” is a fairly good documentary which deserves to be watched along with “Where’s My Roy Cohn?”, and they will give you more knowledge and understanding on Cohn’s life and career. He is a thoroughly hateful man indeed, and the American society is still coping with the consequences of his virulent achievements, but, boy, what a diabolical dude he is.