The Rosenbergs were executed for espionage on June 19, 1953, cementing Cohn’s image as an anti-Communist crusader, and providing the springboard to his work as chief counsel to Senator Joseph McCarthy. Meeropol chronicled the Rosenbergs’ part of the story in a 2004 documentary, “Heir to an Execution.”
Interviewing her father, Michael Meeropol (who took the name of the family that adopted him and his younger brother), the director has created a film that essentially alternates between its ostensible subject, Cohn, and those victimized by his actions.
Cohn is described by journalist Peter Manso as being “without conscience,” and by more than interviewee as “evil.” He was also a mass of contradictions, which has made him a continuing source of fascination: a gay man who persecuted gays (McCarthy calls them “easy prey to the blackmailer”) and courted top conservatives espousing “traditional values” while frequenting Studio 54 and passing around candy dishes filled with cocaine.
Meeropol draws upon a trove of audiotapes from Manso’s interviews with Cohn for Playboy, coupling those with TV clips that essentially allow Cohn to tell his own story. He explains, for example, his tactic of using “the fear of publicity” to induce settlements, having cultivated and manipulated journalists along with political power brokers and mob figures.
Among other things, Cohn speculates that his involvement with McCarthy will inevitably be the first line in his obituary — a point potentially altered by the role he played in helping to set Trump on his path to the White House. Notably, the president’s enduring admiration for lawyers with Cohn’s pit-bull mentality provided the title of that aforementioned documentary.
As noted, Cohn is hardly an under-covered figure, including the play “Angels in America” (playwright Tony Kushner and star Nathan Lane are among those interviewed) and the movie “Citizen Cohn.”
There is also a sense of schadenfreude in Cohn’s fate, which included denying that he had AIDS and being shunned by famous friends he so assiduously cultivated after becoming sick, before his death in 1986.
Inevitably, consumers of previous Cohn projects will note a degree of repetition here. Yet Meeropol’s personal angle brings a slightly fresh spin to her subject, whose story remains as timely as ever.
The title, incidentally, comes from a patch in the AIDS Memorial Quilt devoted to Cohn. In its way, “Bully. Coward. Victim.” endeavors to stitch together the conflicting aspects of the man and make sense of them.
Even now, Cohn remains a puzzle. Still, if forced to choose from among that patch’s options, “Bully” is the attribute that stands out the most.
“Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn” premieres June 18 at 10 p.m. on HBO. Like CNN, HBO is a unit of WarnerMedia.