The word “evil” is often mentioned in reference to Roy Cohn, the notoriously rapacious lawyer and “repairer” whose client list included Joseph McCarthy, several mafia leaders and New York elites such as George Steinbrenner and Donald Trump, a protégé of Cohn. And it comes up often in the new HBO documentary “Bully.” Loose. Victim. The story of Roy Cohn, “starting Thursday, a profile that weighs his influence and legacy against the contradictory details of his private life.
If anyone has the right to use the word, it’s the director of the film, Ivy Meeropol. As a young lawyer in 1951, Cohn pushed the execution of Meeropol’s grandparents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, for spying. The testimony of Ethel’s brother David Greenglass, who said that the Rosenbergs had passed on atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, was at the heart of the prosecution case. Greenglass later admitted to lying under oath, but Cohn never faltered in his pride at the verdict, despite evidence of legal irregularities.
Meeropol had previously struggled with the story of his grandparents in his first film, “Heir to an Execution” (2004), but here the Rosenbergs are just one piece of a much larger puzzle. Meeropol’s documentary attempts to understand a lawyer who played the system on behalf of powerful figures, often arch-conservative, but who lived like a closed homosexual, publicly denying his diagnosis of AIDS until the day of his death complications related to AIDS in 1986.
But “Bully. Loose. Victim. Is as much about Cohnism as it is about Cohn, which is why Meeropol thinks that a label like “evil” is insufficient.