Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn ★★½

Even when Ivy Meeropol was just a little girl, the boogeyman always had a name in her house: Roy Cohn. To the rest of the world, Cohn was the unscrupulous power broker who had first risen to notoriety as the assistant prosecutor responsible for the executions of “atomic spies” Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. To Meeropol, born more than a decade after the fact, Cohn was the man who effectively murdered her grandparents long before she would ever have a chance to meet them.

From a young age, Michael Meeropol taught his daughter about how her family was torn apart for allegedly selling nuclear secrets to the Russians, and perhaps also about the ruthless, pug-nosed, pit bull of a lawyer who all but did the deed with his bare hands. Now a 51-year-old filmmaker, Meeropol even opens her latest documentary with black-and-white home video footage of her childhood, in which Michael reiterates the story to Ivy as if it will one day be her cross to bear. It’s hard to say if he’s passing this information down like a burden, or if Ivy is meant to inherit it as a birthright — if it’s something Michael is preparing his daughter to remember, or something that he’s already training her not to forget — but it’s clear that the rest of her life will unfold in the shadow of what preceded it.

With all of the baggage that its director brings to the project, it would be reasonable to assume that “Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn” offers a uniquely personal look at one of the most ruinous figures of the 20th century; that it doesn’t just contextualize its subject as Joseph McCarthy’s stooge or Donald Trump’s mentor, but as a multi-faceted monster who couldn’t have cared less about the trail of carnage he left in his wake. Even the title of Meeropol’s film — borrowed from the words that are sewn below Roy Cohn’s name on the AIDS quilt that stretches across the Washington Mall — suggests a documentary that aspires to see its namesake through a variety of different lenses: As a relentless aggressor, as a manifestation of his own self-loathing, and (to his eternal chagrin) as someone who eventually fell prey to his own humanity.