Woods paints disturbing portrait of 'Citizen Cohn'


In an ironic scene well into "Citizen Cohn" -- an unsettling new movie premiering on HBO tonight -- an actor portraying Cardinal Spellman says, "Evil exists, it's all around us."

He is speaking of Communists. Yet ironically, evil incarnate sits right beside him at a restaurant table, stealing morsels of food from his plate.

And, boy! What evil lurks in the character of controversial, Commie-hunting, unrepentant-to-the-end lawyer Roy Cohn, as worked up by actor James Woods.

No hint of a shade of gray tempers this creepy portrait of the chief counsel to the infamous Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Indeed, the movie (drawn from Nicholas von Hoffman's book of the same title) suggests Cohn was the true malevolence behind the McCarthy hearings and the agent of the senator's eventual destruction.

Before that, the movie relates, he helped send alleged spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg to the electric chair with no regard whether they were guilty. After the McCarthy era, he cheated legal clients, conspired with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Pat Hingle) and later ended up as a conduit of blackmail against Hoover.

He was a rotten kid, too, as we see in an opening scene where his father (Josef Sommer), a liberal New York judge, tries to tell him, "If you have friends instead of enemies, you never have to protect your back."

"This is one boy they're not going to forget," snarls back Cohn's mother (Lee Grant), hazily presented as at least one root cause of this bad seed.

Viewers are not likely to forget the movie "Citizen Cohn," either. But many likely will find it disturbing for, unlike any film bio you can think of, the movie finds no redeeming qualities in its subject -- unless consistency is a virtue.

As the movie sees him, Cohn was a Jew who persecuted Jews, a homosexual who used others' homosexuality for extortion purposes and a perverter of the concept of privacy, who used pious pleas of privacy when it suited him.

In structure, director Frank Pierson (who won an Oscar for "Dog Day Afternoon") presents Cohn dying of AIDS in a New York hospital in 1986. He is wrestling in his dreams with figures from his past and in real time snarling at nurses, doctors and anybody else who visits him.

Symbolically, we conclude, his maker has put Cohn on trial. Flashback scenes chronicle a zestful wallow of a life that fully justifies the conclusion of ghostly figure Robert F. Kennedy (whom Cohn hated and battled), "What a miserable little man you are."

Now, the usual pattern of such this-is-your-life reviews calls for repentance, or at least recognition of the error of one's ways. But here, Cohn's final words are said to have been "get me the name of the judge," echoing an earlier line in the film when he needs to distort the legal process.

Mr. Woods milks the role with gusto, and is simply fascinating to watch. He paces and darts his eyes and works a thin mouth that finds a smile hard to make.

Viewers would be wise, however, to read up on some history before sitting down to "Citizen Cohn." The full context of the lawyer's rise is not sketched well, and events tend to jump through time with only murky explanation. Indeed, thoughtful viewers should probably not accept much of "Citizen Cohn" as good history.

But as a character study, albeit of a distasteful character, the movie undeniably absorbs.


LOCAL ANGLE -- In an early scene in "Citizen Cohn," the figure of Judge Irving Kaufman sentences convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to death in 1951.

The actor in the bit part is Steve Aronson, a former Baltimore/Washington area lawyer and community theater figure who in 1990 set out to make show business a full-time career.

Mr. Aronson recently sent out a clever mock summons to friends urging them "to appear as a third party witness to the performance" by watching the HBO movie.

"Failure to appear . . . will result in an aggravated loss of viewer enjoyment," he wrote.

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