By Charles Bramesco
The Guardian (6/17/20)
Back in 2004, with the documentary Heir to an Execution, Ivy Meeropol began the decades-spanning project of exorcising the demon haunting her family. The Academy-shortlisted film sheds some light on the dark heritage of the Meeropol kids, descended as they are from Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the couple executed by the United States government in 1953 having been convicted of sharing military secrets with the Soviet Union. When not teaching as an economics professor, Ivy’s father Michael spent most of his adult life on a crusade to restore and advocate for the reputation of his late parents, after years of defamation from the sinister prosecutor in the case Roy Cohn. Ivy’s film-making brought some elusive semblance of closure to this process – until, that is, early November 2016.
“At first, I really didn’t want to make a film about Roy Cohn, because I felt like I’d delved into my family’s story enough, and I didn’t really relish returning to that topic,” Meeropol tells the Guardian over the phone from her home quarantine.
In a new documentary, film-maker Ivy Meeropol discusses the dark legacy of Roy Cohn and how his nefarious work affected her family.
“That made me resistant to tackling his story, even though I was fascinated and compelled by him and I certainly had this unique perspective. But once I did decide to embark on this project, which was a result of Trump’s election – that’s what made me decide to do this – then I did start to feel like this might be an extension of my earlier work.”
Meeropol’s latest feature, HBO’s boldly titled Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn, returns her to the grimmest chapter of her personal history. But she revisits the topic with fresh perspective to illuminate the other side of her life’s defining conflict, with focus placed less on her family’s struggle than on Cohn himself, a significant yet little-seen character in the previous film. It plays like a timely companion piece to Meeropol’s early work, enriching and recontextualizing her ideas instead of simply restating them. “I made it clear I didn’t want this to be Heir to an Execution Part II,” she says. “I wanted it to be something new.”
She began by decentering herself, the implicit protagonist of Heir to an Execution. She knew she’d have to provide what she refers to as a “synopsis” of how she and her relatives fit into the material, but she wanted that to serve as the gate through which she could venture into new territory. “What was gratifying was how I was able to build on Heir to an Execution, expanding on the period of time when my father and uncle were trying to reopen the case. All that new material, which tied back to Cohn, was a revelation.” …