Providing sufficient biographical background for a documentary’s talking-heads is one way to challenge their talk by contextualizing the talker.
Another way is to explicitly do so. Some may argue that Where’s My Roy Cohn?‘s refusal to hold to account the rolodex of Cohn acquaintances interviewed throughout — how can a legitimately good person befriend such a devil? — is an ethical lapse in judgement (whether journalistic standards should be applied to documentaries — and, for that matter, any art “based on a true story” — is a potent area of debate… for another day), but I’m aware of why documentarians would avoid potentially pissing off the people upon whom their cinematic enterprise relies. And yet, on a purely artistic level, letting them off the hook scot-free closes off interesting intellectual avenues down which the documentary could’ve traversed.
Though combative interviews might satiate morality-forward audiences, the interviewers themselves need not be the source of conflicting viewpoints. Rather, documentaries can contest one perspective — or call out a blindspot — by interviewing someone who voices these contrasting opinions. And such a tapestry of stances could’ve offered Where’s My Roy Cohn? a specific lens through which to tackle Cohn’s life, instead of regurgitating a thesis-less biographical overview structure. No piece of art should ever be about only one thing, but settling on a primary theme to frame a biography can be a fruitful means of touching upon a wide variety of topics related to a life story, including one that particularly resonates with today’s discourse:
How Cohn’s liberal friends justified accepting someone who not only opposed their ideals, but actively thwarted them — thereby hurting and even killing innocents — on a national level. There’s not even a whiff of a suggestion questioning the handful of interviewed friends, relatives, and co-workers as to how they could be intimates with a demon, and how their decision to look past his sins to forge a relationship with him may have allowed him to thrive. This historical — and complicit? — whitewashing is left unchecked. Figuring out how to paint a complete portrait of Cohn — AND HIS ENABLERS — while navigating the obvious pitfalls caused by detailing aspects that may alienate the narrative-recounters is the job of a documentarian, unless they aim no higher than an access-obsessed puff piece.
A missing figure in Where’s My Roy Cohn?: Barbara Walters. Cohn claimed they were close to being engaged after growing up together into lifelong friends. For a supporter of progressive causes, how could she live with herself? When the inevitable Walters documentary comes out, Cohn better be a prominent chapter.
Fuck, who am I kidding; if she’s like other celebrities, Walters will open her archives under the condition that the documentary veers away from terrain treacherous to her legacy. Famous subjects acquiesce to the uncomfortable entering the picture strictly in moderation, and to their personal satisfaction. Without her blessing, the filmmakers will be kept at a remove (restrictions can be creativity’s best friend, but the enemy for “creatives” who wish to minimize the work required to compile biographical materials). AKA Cohn will be, at most, a tangential aside, cast aside to make room for more of the usual hagiographic accomplishments. Because, like Cohn himself, the rich and powerful prefer to put their best foot forward — full, complex, contradictory truth be damned.