Excepting the whole “talking to ghosts” bit, Angels In America didn’t have to take much dramatic license to make a compelling villain out of legal vulture Roy Cohn. He jam-packed several lifetimes of deleterious influence into his years on this Earth, his most notable works looking today like a Greatest Hits collection of human rights violations. He was Joseph McCarthy’s right-hand man for the reactionary Communist hunt in 1950s Hollywood, during which he managed to get Jewish American citizens Julius and Ethel Rosenberg executed on inconclusive charges of espionage. He buddied up with Donald Trump by getting the real estate upstart off the hook for barring Black New Yorkers from taking up residence at his properties. (They settled for a tiny sum, and most importantly, Trump never had to admit guilt—the most important leaf in the Cohn playbook.) He managed to shuffle off this mortal coil with middle finger still fully extended, rewriting reality to rebrand his AIDS diagnosis as liver cancer and hoarding experimental medication while other gay men succumbed to the plague by the thousands.
Tony Kushner’s fantasia on national themes covered all of this, which naturally poses the question of what Matt Tyrnauer’s new documentary about Cohn’s life and works has to say for itself. As suggested by the title, an utterance by our glorious soup-brained commander-in-chief taken from a 2018 piece in The New York Times, Tyrnauer has the benefit of a modern perspective placing Cohn in the chain of causality for most of today’s problems. But without any revelatory new information not readily available in a quick Google search, that contextualizing starts to feel opportunistic, as if stocks in Cohn loathing are up and the time has come to sell, sell, sell.
Anyone with the vaguest consciousness of American political history doesn’t need 97 minutes to learn that this dead-eyed ethical vacuum was a bad person, or even the depth of his badness. Although Tyrnauer excels in arrangement and presentation, organizing the major bullet points in Cohn’s career with the rigor of a litigator building a courtroom case, the charges stick because they’ve all already been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. The audible harrumphs of approval coming from New York’s press screening confirmed the effectiveness of telling an audience what they want to hear. Reams upon reams of archival footage have been spiffed up and spliced in, transporting the auditorium back to the nastiest corners of the good ol’ days and accomplishing little else.
The most compelling aspect of Cohn’s enormity, that he essentially bent conservative society to his will by forcing them to silently accept his openly secret homosexuality, rates only a couple of mentions free of any analysis into that particular cognitive dissonance. The focus remains on the precise nature of Cohn’s malevolence, the demon seed from which the current brand of bullying, fact-resistant Republicanism has grown. Within that much, the matter of psychology starts to get interesting: What could possibly fill a person with so much denial and self-loathing? But Tyrnauer’s approach errs more on the side of book report than character study.
Which brings it all back to Angels In America, an inquest into both the details of Cohn’s life as well as its interiority. Even working in a fictive register, Kushner pinned down the truth of this man more incisively than a well-collated collection of factoids and soundbites ever could. To fully understand Cohn, to see how the larger-than-life force shaping the latter half of the 20th century came to mold the 21st as well, requires a more penetrating approach than Tyrnauer’s easily digested, skin-deep survey. About an hour in, a person might start to worry that this will be how posterity processes the Trump years: with all eyes on what the hell happened, and zero consideration to how or why.