Scripter David Franzoni, drawing his material from Nicholas von Hoffman’s bio of lawyer Roy Cohn, has created a potent portrait of the Cold War tactician who, in the name of fighting communism, ruined so many lives. Director Frank Pierson and Franzoni have developed well-defined scenes, worked up revelatory moments, and brought off a scary look at a scary era; “Citizen Cohn” is a powerhouse.
Telefilm, starting with Cohn’s dying of AIDS complications in l986, folds back on his past with a mix of dramatizations of his devious climb to authority and imagined hospital visitations from people he hurt in the course of his life.
While theatrical, the ghosts device works, though Cohn’s doctor’s caustic remarks would seem aimed at TV audiences, not at his patient.
Cohn’s anti-Red handiwork looks like a course in off-handed, anti-Semitic villainy. The executed Rosenbergs are graphically represented when, after convicted as spies, Ethel Rosenberg (Karen Ludwig) is strapped in the electric chair; Voice of America’s Ray Kaplan (Peter Maloney) and UN chief counsel Abe Feller (Allen Garfield), thanks to Cohn, march to their grim fates.
The cases illustrate Cohn’s style. And power. The Joe McCarthy (Joe Don Baker) saga rears up like a mushroom cloud, with Cohn dominating the proceedings. Episodes with hotel heir David Schine (Jeffrey Nordling) recall the Katzenjammer actions of the duo as they wheeled around Europe in a blaze of publicity and nastiness.
Cohn’s connections are mighty — Cardinal Spellman, Winchell, Carmine Gelanti , Army Secretary Robert Stevens among the many. J. Edgar Hoover (Pat Hingle, less bulldog than the FBI chief’s usually played) knows how to cope with Cohn, and the lesser-known Iva Schlesinger (Tovah Feldshuh, in a terrific portrayal), eventually helps bring Cohn down.
But it’s Cohn’s show and James Woods, in imaginative casting, is unnerving, ranging from the confused hospital-ridden patient to the smartly paced, homophobic gay prosecutor who knows every vicious trick to nail opponents. Woods’s interp, chock-full of nuances, is masterful.
Cohn’s undercover homosexuality weaves in and out of the vidpic. He makes up to Schine, though he reportedly never had an affair with him; he openly collects young men while denying his gayness.
Ed Flanders’s soft-spoken, deadly opposing counsel Joseph Welch, Lee Grant’s domineering Ma Cohn, Josef Sommer’s controlled Judge Cohn, Fritz Weaver’s crafty Everett Dirksen are admirable parts of the tapestry.
Filling in historical perspective, the TV movie plays segs of testimony by Adolph Menjou, Gary Cooper and Robert Taylor, and includes a newsreel account of the JFKs riding triumphantly down Fifth Avenue.
It all works.
The screenplay, cunningly sailing through such omissions as Cohn’s partner Tom Bolan, makes symbolic points with such tidy reportage as Cohn picking morsels from fellow diners’ plates at the Stork Club.
Designer Stephen Marsh uses Pittsburgh sites in heroic style, with Paul Elliott’s immaculate camerawork settingup such diverse scenes as confined smokey hearings or Cohn and RFK (David Marshall Grant) facing off in classic form on a marble staircase. Peter Zinner’s creative editing compounds the telefilm’s unrelenting pace.