Citizen Cohn (1992)

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Watching this old favourite again reminded me that US history is littered with corrosively corrupt people, some of them still inexplicably alive to continue damaging their nation and the people they ruin. Some are thankfully dead and unable to spread more of their virulent influence. One of the latter was Roy Cohn.

James Woods plays the malevolent Cohn with a relentless ferocity that made me wonder whether the actor hadn’t lost his mind when I first saw his performance in the early 1990s.

The intensity of the performance is a reflection of more than deserved contempt for the lawyer, swindler, social climber, and confidante to some of the most powerful men of his era. It is the justified hangover from one of the most shameful periods of American history: the McCarthy anti-communist communist witch-hunts.

Based on a biography by journalist and editorialist Nicholas von Hoffman, it was screenwriter David Franzoni’s second script, after Jumpin’ Jack Flash, winning unexpected acclaim when accomplished director Frank Pierson (Cat Ballou, Cool Hand Luke), turned it into an HBO film.

Casting Woods as Cohn was inspired. I can think of no one else who could have portrayed such a frenzied pursuit of ego, malice, and hypocrisy.

Told as a series of flashbacks from his deathbed, where he hallucinates encounters with his victims and suffers dementia-fuelled outbursts that are little different from his professional conduct, Cohn is shown as a Jewish fairy princess, cossetted by his smothering mother, closeting his homosexuality behind the neurotic pretense that his predilection for butch young men was absolved by his public homophobia. He also pursued Jews like the Rosenbergs, and many others, particularly in the entertainment industry. As if to deny his own Jewishness. Perhaps there was a pattern to a self-loathing played out in cruel persecutions of others for what he regarded as his own loathsome characteristics. But Pierson doesn’t spoon-feed any conclusions to the audience.

Most strongly pursued in the film is Cohn’s benighting facilitation of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy’s self-aggrandising mission to demonise communists, without any care about destroying the lives of thousands of Americans completely innocent of any crimes.

Joe Don Baker is quite convincing as the cirrhotic McCarthy, and he is joined by a fantastic cast of character actors who combine the portrayal of real people with lines that offer up a condensed but evocative insight into Cohn’s life and career.

Woods as Cohn and Flanders as Welch at the Army-McCarthy hearing in 1954.
Woods as Cohn and Flanders as Welch at the Army-McCarthy hearing in 1954.

Ed Flanders as Army counsel Joseph Welch delivers a powerful performance as he turns back onto Cohn his obsessive efforts to extricate lover David Schine from military duty, stirring a hornet’s nest by insulting and threatening senior bureaucrats and officers; this was the subject matter also of George Clooney’s excellent film, Good Night, and Good Luck (2005). I doubt we would see in film today the play on pixie and fairy that the fictional Welch interwove in his rebuttal of Cohn’s bullying tactics in the 1954 Army–McCarthy hearings, but it belongs in the film to highlight Cohn’s hypocrisy. Welch was the man who really asked McCarthy whether he had no sense of decency, followed, in the film, by a standing ovation from the audience to the hearings.

Frederick Forrest reprised his rôle as Dashiell Hammett, whom he had played in the marvellous 1982 Wim Wenders film, Hammett. Onscreen he is seen refusing to participate in betraying his friends and acquaintances. Offscreen we know he was a member of the Communist Party of the USA, and active in the Civil Rights Congress (CRC). In 1951 he was gaoled for six months, guilty of contempt of court for refusing to name individuals who might be friendly with four men who had escaped while on bail posted by the CRC. Following this sentence he was pursued by the IRS for $100,000 in back taxes, and in March 1953 he testified in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he was interrogated by Cohn, but refused to incriminate himself or others. For that he was blacklisted for the remainder of his life (the McCarthy Hearings transcripts were de-classified in 2003 and are available as PDFs from the US Senate website). he suffered a heart attack in 1955, lived as a recluse, and died of lung cancer in January 1961. A veteran of both world wars, he had contracted Spanish flu and tuberculosis while he was in his 20s, making him less than healthy all his life. His long-time companion, Lillian Hellman, says despite his frail health, it was the anti-communist witch-hunts that broke him, making him a perfect symbol of that despicable episode in America’s post-war history.

Pat Hingle as the sneaky, avuncular J Edgar Hoover is perfect as a master manipulator of Cohn, turning him into a saboteur of Robert Kennedy, again acting as a toxic, corrosive agent on the body of American society. But Cohn’s arrogance saw him run afoul of even Hoover.

Cohn’s own trial for dishonesty is shown as an indictment of American jurisprudence, essentially unequal to the task of regulating its own practices by permitting Cohn to act with perfidy and larceny as a lawyer for another twenty years. The film doesn’t dwell on it, but his clients included gangsters and other high profile people, including Donald Trump, when he was accused of discriminating against black tenants; a case settled rather than tried. Cohn was not disbarred until 1986, the year he died. The film suggests this was the result of swindling a client. But that may be a stand-in metaphor for an unrepentant, life-long pattern of dishonesty.

The film also doesn’t show Cohn’s relationship with Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, though it is known he was a confidante to both.

Cohn was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984, but denied he had the disease despite being treated for it at great expense that many others couldn’t afford. He is said to have vowed to die broke and owing millions to the Internal Revenue Service. It seems that this was a final victory for an unsavoury man.

Citizen Cohn is dated, under-produced by contemporary standards, and probably edited down to a much shorter length than the subject matter would bear. And yet it is a better piece of television than almost anything new I’ve seen in recent months.

The film has the added advantage of offering an impartial insight from far in the past into the kind of people currently occupying high office in the USA, and what it might cost the country to not remove them forthwith.

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