Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 29, 2019)
Though best-known as the attorney who assisted Senator Joseph McCarthy during the infamous anti-Communist investigations of the 1950s, Roy Cohn gained renewed notoriety due to his role as mentor to Donald Trump. Cohn’s life and career become the focus of Where’s My Roy Cohn?, a 2019 documentary.
Where’s opts for a standard framework, as it mixes archival footage/comments from Cohn with modern interviews. In the latter realm, we get remarks from protégé Roger Stone, journalists Ken Auletta, Marie Brenner, David Cay Johnston and Sam Roberts, lawyers John Vassallo, Martin London and Robert Cohen, cousins Gary Marcus, Anne Roiphe and Dave Marcus, lawyer/author Jim Zirin, historian Thomas Doherty, gossip columnist Liz Smith, boyfriend Wallace Adams, publisher David Rosenthal, former US Attorney Peter Sudler, and publisher/friend Jason Epstein.
After a general introduction, Where’s goes back to 1951 to look at the Communist scare as well as Cohn’s involvement in those efforts. The film then flashes back to Cohn’s childhood and early career.
Once Where’s catches back up to the 1950s, it gets into his connection with McCarthy. We also cover Cohn’s homosexuality and how that impacted his actions as well as aspects of his personal life and career, all as we build toward Cohn’s relationship with Donald Trump and other events.
There’s no such thing as a truly objective documentary, but in an ideal world, filmmakers should pursue that tone. Though it becomes inevitable that bias emerges, we should find as little of that as possible.
Unquestionably, Where’s wears its opinions on its sleeve, and most of these aim at one Donald J. Trump. The film’s title comes from a Trump quote in which he bemoaned that none of his governmental underlings would act as his “personal fixer” ala Cohn.
That’s a horrifying attitude, but we try to avoid politics here, so I’ll leave it to others to dig into that topic. In this case, I mention it because it demonstrates that Where’s often feels more like a stand-in for an examination of Trumpism than a true biography of Cohn.
Okay, I’ll admit that’s a stretch and probably unfair, as Where’s digs into Cohn’s life and career with gusto. It doesn’t formally touch on Trump that often.
However, given the film’s period of creation and it release date, the underlying theme that Cohn begat a clone in Trump remains pervasive. If Trump never earns the GOP nomination in 2016, this movie looks very different.
I suspect the filmmakers would’ve still offered a fairly one-sided affair, though. As I noted earlier, we find strong signs of bias in Where’s, and I believe those still would exist even without Trump’s rise to power.
Not that this thinks I mean Where’s should offer some kind of “both sides” project. Heck, I don’t feel there really is “another side” from the POV of a perspective that deserves credibility.
Cohn seems to have been a genuinely awful person. I’m sure he had some positives, but he acted as such a corrupting force in the US that I don’t really see a counterargument to balance his insidious nature.
That said, Where’s suffers because the filmmakers batter us with their views. We get no subtlety here, as the movie constantly conveys the notion that Cohn was bad bad bad bad bad.
Take the film’s score, for instance. We find relentless overly-dramatic music, just one of the many factors that pounds a certain attitude at us.
Again, I don’t argue Cohn wasn’t despicable. However, the film could make its points without such “in your face” urgency, and we’d feel more satisfied.
In addition, Where’s spends too much time with Cohn’s personal life and his homosexuality. I get that these areas demonstrate his hypocrisy, but the segments tend to feel more salacious than informative.
In addition, the film attempts some introspection when it looks at those personal domains. We see Cohn as both a self-loathing Jew and a self-loathing homosexual who struck out at the world due to his own insecurities.
Unfortunately, Where’s fails to dig into these areas with any real depth. The topics get a little attention but remain too superficial to go anywhere.
Where’s also feels rushed. I feel like the filmmakers so badly wanted to get to the Trump sections of Cohn’s life that they burned through the prior years, even though those acted as the most important in Cohn’s public domain.
All of this leads to a sporadically interesting but unsatisfying documentary. Roy Cohn seems like a fascinating subject for this sort of treatment but the film doesn’t connect like it should.