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Review: 'Bully. Coward. Victim.' is a too-brief look at a prince of darkness

Roy Cohn's story gets short shrift in HBO documentary

Tom Long
Special to The Detroit News

The breadth of Roy Cohn’s awfulness may only be matched by the grim depth of his influence on today’s America.

He was only 24 when he helped prosecute Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as Soviet spies, on a dubious charge that led to their execution. Then he led the early ‘50s McCarthy Red Scare congressional hearings, smearing people as communists, destroying lives and careers.

Roy Cohn in "Bully. Coward. Victim."

After the McCarthy circus ended Cohn became a favorite lawyer for top mobsters in New York City, even as he was hobnobbing with city’s elite political, business and cultural figures. One young real estate developer in particular caught Cohn’s eye and became enthralled with Cohn’s influence. That developer’s name was Donald Trump.

Cohn lied prodigiously and refused to back down from those lies. He ran up bills with a luxurious lifestyle and refused to pay them. He filed countless lawsuits and had a lifelong history of shady financial dealings and antipathy to the IRS. He was brutal, pugnacious and obsessed with power.

Remind you of anybody?

And oh yes, he was a closeted gay man even as the McCarthy hearings targeted homosexuals. He died of AIDS in 1986 at age 59, insisting to the end that he had liver cancer.

So the documentary “Bully. Coward. Victim: The Story of Roy Cohn” can’t help but feel a bit slight at 94 minutes. I mean, Tony Kushner’s award-winning play about Cohn, “Angels in America” runs nearly six hours.

All Cohn’s greatest hits are in the film, though, and since it’s made by Ivy Meeropol, a granddaughter of the Rosenberg’s, it offers some new perspectives and footage. With the presidential election coming up and the country suffering from a multitude of social seizures, the film’s context and history are certainly relevant.

But there is hopefully much yet to be said about this twisted, thoroughly terrible man and his dark influence on the modern world.

Tom Long is a longtime contributor to The Detroit News. 

“Bully. Coward. Victim: The Story of Roy Cohn”

GRADE B-

9 p.m. Thursday

HBO