Roy Cohn succumbed to AIDS in 1986, difficult and abrasive to the end. "Well, at last," a doctor says about his patient's death in HBO's "Citizen Cohn," "he did something human."
Without a doubt, HBO makes the most interesting movies on U.S. television, if not necessarily the most successful. Airing at 8 tonight, "Citizen Cohn" is no exception: fascinating yet somehow lacking, with James Woods stunning in a grim, unsparing, kick-butt depiction of a dangerous man who, by many accounts, was a dishonest, ruthless poseur who saw power as a pickax to be used for decapitation.
The same pickax that this movie, labeled as "dramatic fiction," uses on him.
The source for David Franzoni's script is a Nicholas von Hoffman biography. The initial setting is America's labyrinth of early Cold War politics in which Cohn, a brilliant young government attorney who graduated from law school at age 19 and aligned himself with right-wing causes, gains prominence by helping prosecute Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Rosenbergs were executed after being convicted in 1951 for helping smuggle atomic bomb secrets to the Soviets.
Soon afterward, Cohn becomes chief counsel for a Red-hunting, life-wrecking, career-destroying congressional subcommittee ("Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?") headed by Sen. Joseph McCarthy (Joe Don Baker). On the screen, the pair's vision is impaired by the same blinding sunspot known as "anti-Communism." Yet this is also a mentor-protege union of bullying, self-aggrandizing, do-anything-for-a-headline demagogues. Cohn is much more opportunist than ideologue, and McCarthy gives his young hit man the ultimate compliment by telling him he built dirty tricks "into an art form."
"Citizen Cohn" uses Cohn's hospital room, where he lies dying and connected to tubes, as a device to trigger the flashbacks that tell his story. Here, in a hallucinatory state, he defiantly confronts and is tormented by such personal demons from his past as Ethel Rosenberg and Joseph Welch, the fatherly attorney whose performance during the televised Army-McCarthy hearings helped gain him a brief movie career and exposed McCarthy as a charlatan.
"Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?" Welch (Ed Flanders) asks McCarthy, after the senator has attempted publicly to smear a young member of Welch's law firm. "Have you left no sense of decency?"
McCarthy died in 1957, but Cohn went on to a controversial career-- he was ultimately disbarred--as a flamboyant, high-living attorney with access to the smoke-choked epicenters of influence, be they government or even organized crime. In one scene, especially well directed by Frank Pierson, we see J. Edgar Hoover (Pat Hingle) play for Cohn a tape he says was made at the request of U.S. Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy. The sounds on the tape are said to be of Martin Luther King Jr. and a woman having sex.
Cohn's early years effectively symbolize dark times. Beyond its McCarthy period, however, "Citizen Cohn" has intermittent lapses in energy and focus, never fully justifying the attention it pays to this notorious antihero's later years or explaining in dramatic terms why his post-'50s life is even worth commemorating.
When not snarling at his victims, moreover, Baker's McCarthy is a feebly defined, almost comically avuncular figure who is difficult to square with the fiercely political man who terrorized so many. And the hallucination sequences are only partially successful: Cohn's hospital room ultimately fills with so many people that \o7 you\f7 start gasping for air.
Driving "Citizen Cohn" always, though, is Woods. Churning with self-hate, his nasty, arrogant, crooked Cohn is an anti-Semitic Jew and a homophobic homosexual who, as Welch notes in one of those fantasy sequences, enjoys "persecuting in public those who in private are no different than you."
Coddled throughout his life by his mother (played by Lee Grant, herself a 13-year victim of Hollywood blacklisting), Cohn here is a cad who can be witty and charming, but whose mind is at once a lustrous gem and deeply flawed. "Whatever happened to right or wrong?" Ethel Rosenberg asks. "I don't know," he replies.
Roy Cohn: at his worst, a metaphor for America at its worst.