“Bully. Coward. Victim.” is not the title you would expect for a documentary on Roy Cohn, the infamous Joseph McCarthy ally and Donald Trump mentor who built his name prosecuting Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. “Victim” seems especially perverse considering that the director, Ivy Meeropol, is a granddaughter of the Rosenbergs. The HBO film was originally scheduled to debut on Friday, the anniversary of their execution in 1953.
But “Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn” is often not the film you would expect. Long stretches are not a personal reckoning but an overview; many details overlap with “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” from last year, although the clips here are at least as good. It is also more sympathetic to Cohn than either Cohn’s reputation or the familial animosity would suggest. The title comes from a panel on the AIDS Memorial Quilt that Meeropol and her father, Michael Meeropol, stumbled upon when they visited.
It’s hardly new to observe that Cohn was untroubled by rules or ethics, or that he was a raging hypocrite. A foe of gay rights who all but dared people to observe that he was gay, he died of AIDS in 1986. Tony Kushner, who used Cohn’s biography as one of the axes of hypocrisy in “Angels in America,” appears here, as does Nathan Lane, who won a Tony for his (to my mind miscast) recent performance as Cohn.
As for Cohn’s influence on Trump, the film suggests that he helped convince the then-real estate developer that he had the aptitude to be a nuclear-arms negotiator. The vintage footage of Cohn discussing Trump plays as alternately prescient and groan-worthy. Cohn says that Trump dislikes “anything political” but suggests that “not too far in the distant future, you’re going to see Donald Trump in other parts of the country.”
What’s most striking are the marginal anecdotes of Cohn’s shamelessness. The writer Peter Manso, a consultant on the documentary, sifts through Cohn’s old bills to illustrate Cohn’s habit of stiffing people. The gossip columnist Cindy Adams, who tells her own amusing anecdote about Cohn’s derelict payments, admits that he exploited her perch at The New York Post. The taste-flouting filmmaker John Waters recalls being appalled spotting Cohn summering in the gay haven of Provincetown, Mass.
Given the filmmaker’s connection to the material and her access, it is surprising, even strangely admirable that much of “Bully. Coward. Victim.” plays so conventionally. True, Ivy Meeropol has examined the Rosenbergs case onscreen before (in the 2004 documentary “Heir to an Execution”), and she interweaves family history here. In one fiery TV clip, Michael Meeropol confronts Cohn to his face, though it didn’t necessarily take a relative to find that scene.
Cohn was a paradox, and so is this documentary — a brisk, entertaining, quite full primer that nevertheless feels like it missed an opportunity for a unique angle or approach.
Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes. Watch on HBO.