Citizen Cohn (1992)




Director:   Frank Pierson.

Starring:    James Woods (Roy Cohn), Joe Don Baker (Senator Joseph McCarthy), Joseph Bologna (Walter Winchell), Ed Flanders (lawyer Joseph N. Welch), Frederic Forrest (Dashiell Hammett), Lee Grant (Cohn's mother), Pat Hingle (J. Edgar Hoover), John McMartin (older doctor), Josef Sommer (Cohn's father), Tovah Feldshuh (Iva Schlesinger), Frances Foster (first Annie Lee Moss), Allen Garfield (Abe Feller), David Marshall Grant (Robert F. Kennedy).

Made for TV movie.

Cohn was some rotten son-of-a-bitch.  He not only was a key henchman to the rabid anti-Communist Joseph McCarthy, but after the witch hunts. he survives to pull viciously and brutally many a political string locally in New York City  



Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film.


New York City, 1935. Roy Cohn, born 1927 in the Bronx, New York City, is a young boy. He sits between his parents at a restaurant. His parents are arguing. The mother is very shrill and very dominating over her husband. Her husband is a judge and she wants him to use his judicial office to fix a traffic ticket for her. The judge does not want to do this. At first the judge says no, but mother just keeps on badgering him until he gives in.

Roy seems already corrupted by his mother. He orders around the waiter with such contempt that he deserved a punishment. But mom just approves of his behavior because her son is very like his mother.

1948-1950. Russia has gotten the hydrogen bomb.

An announcer: "The Communist Party of the United States is a fifth column if there ever was one. . . . Their goal is the overthrow of our government. . . . Their allegiance is to Russia, not the United States. . . . Victory will be assured once Communists are identified and exposed."

The headline of that day says: "Red Issue Stirs Film Hearing!"  Actor Adolphe Menjou says in the committee hearing: "This is a foul philosophy, this communistic thing. I would move to the state of Texas if it ever came here because I think the Texans would kill them on sight."

Actor Gary Cooper says: "I have never read Karl Marx and I don't know the basis of Communism beyond what I've picked up from hearsay. From what I've heard, I don't like it, because it isn't on the level."

Roy Marcus Cohn, 1986. Roy looks very bad. He is suffering from some type of illness that seems to be taking his life. Roy pushes the button for the nurse. She comes running to his bedside. The senior doctor, Dr. Sanford, now comes in to check on Cohn and his young doctor.

The nurse asks who is this guy? He must be important for this is the second call from the White House she's gotten. Sanford says: "They wanted to make sure he was dead." The young doctor asks Sanford if he knew Roy Cohn? Oh, yes, says Sanford: "Joe McCarthy's strong right hand." The young doctor says that Cohn got the Rosenberg spies executed for supposedly leaking the hydrogen bomb secrets to the Reds.

Sanford says he'll bet that the "great patriot" doesn't survive the night. At this Cohn sits straight up in bed. He says: "Fuck you! I don't need you. I don't need anybody. Roy Cohn can take care of himself. I took care of the fucking Rosenbergs."

Flashback. 1951. Today the judge will pass sentence on Julia and Ethel Rosenberg. The sentence is: death by electrocution. Immediately, Roy Cohn raises his right fist into the air in celebration of the conviction and sentencing of the Rosenbergs. Upon electrocution, Ethel's body just shakes and shakes.

Back to the present. Cohn awakes from his dream scared. Roy laughs and says about the Rosenbergs: "I beat them again."

His boyfriend Peter comes in and Cohn asks him where has he been? He says to Peter that they tried again last night to kill him. He says "they" paid one of the doctors to kill him. He feels sorry for himself and says everybody hates him now.

Cohn gets so angry that he throws his breakfast up in the air and to one side. He jumps out of bed, runs past the nurse and makes it about 1/4 of the way down the hall before he collapses. Peter has to pick him up and carry him back to bed.

Roy panics when the nurse and doctor try to give him an injection. He says they are death itself. Peter calms him down enough so Peter can inject him with the syringe. The boyfriend tells him to fight the disease, not his friends. Roy is in complete denial. He asks: "What disease?"

Roy starts to hallucinate. The spirit of Ethel Rosenberg comes to see him in his hospital room. Roy says: "Dead. I killed you, spy." She wonders if she really was a spy, or was it that Cohn just made it up? She says: "All the Jews were afraid, because they thought if you killed me, all the Jews would die."

Flashback. The Red Hunts begin.

Mr. Feller, United Nations chief counsel, obeys a subpoena and comes in to talk with Cohn. Feller says they can ask him anything about himself, but he won't incriminate his friends at the UN.

Cohn demands that Feller name names. If Feller won't, then he could fire his employees and that way prove his innocence to the committee. Feller refuses that idea, so Cohn tells him to name names.

Flashback, 1952. Senator McCarthy talks to a bunch of reporters about looking for Reds. He says: "They're swine. I'm not afraid to point them out and get them out."

As McCarthy turns his back to the reporters and starts to walk away from them, Roy Cohn introduces himself to the senator. Cohn wants to get a job with McCarthy, but McCarthy's in too much of a hurry right now.

Stopping to meet Cohn is Robert Kennedy, brother to John Kennedy. He helps Cohn by saying that if Cohn wants to talk with McCarthy, he has to do it very early in the morning. Cohn shakes the man's hand and thanks him for his help.

Cohn says he'll catch McCarthy now. McCarthy says he is moving from ranking minority to Chairman. It will be his subcommittee. Cohn says Kennedy is going to ruin McCarthy's committee. He says if McCarthy and Kennedy are working together, people are going to say that it's an Irish-Catholic run pogrom because they are going after a lot of Jewish people. McCarthy replies that he's running an anti-communist subcommittee, not an anti-Semitic subcommittee. Cohn counters with the observation that McCarthy's enemies won't see it that way.

McCarthy asks Cohn isn't Cohn's father a liberal Democrat? Cohn get a little angry and says: "Senator, if I ever thought that my father were disloyal to this country that we both love, I'd put his name on the list myself. I'd be the first one to put him in a witness chair and tear him to pieces." He adds that Robert Kennedy wouldn't do that to his father.

Walter Winchell, a radio personality, is an avid anti-Communist and just loves this new alliance of McCarthy and Cohn.

Cohn comes home for a visit. Dad looks a bit peeved at him, but his mother is really glad to see him again. He brags to his mother about how important he has become. But dad is not happy. He tells his son: "Abe Feller is a communist like you're a communist." A friend of dad called Mr. Cohn to tell him that Feller's UN staff were all fired because Feller named names. And now Abe Feller has been fired too.

Roy asks why can't dad be happy for his accomplishments? Roy just doesn't get it and thinks only of himself. Dad tells him: "I am ashamed."

McCarthy gives a speech in which he holds up a list of names saying these people will be called to account. Meanwhile, Mr. Feller is about to commit suicide. In a hotel room he crawls out a window and onto a ledge. He lets himself fall to the street below.

A whole bunch of reporters want to know what happened to Mr. Feller and they want to hear it from Roy Cohn. Cohn says the man was just overwhelmed by all the internal pressure at his job and he broke. And the psychopath has the nerve to use Feller's name to justify further witch-hunts in the nation. Cohn says: "That way, there will never have to be any more Abe Fellers."

Roy goes after poor Raymond Kaplan who has worked for the Voice of America for ten years. Cohn accuses Kaplan of being part of a conspiracy to put up radio towers so they won't reach the nations that they actually want to reach with the organization's messages.   And now Kaplan is expected to name names. Otherwise he can be held in contempt of Congress.

Winchell speaks with Cohn about Cohn feeding him stories that he will broadcast. He says to Cohn: "I'll make you a star."

Winchell invites Cohn out to a dinner with none other than Cardinal Spellman. McCarthy is there too. The cardinal is another rabid anti-communist extremist. Cohn hopes to get support from the cardinal for his witch hunts.

At the table Cohn does something really weird. He takes samples off the plates of the other three men at the table. That's strange and especially so because he's trying to impress Winchell and the cardinal.

Mr. Kaplan kills himself by walking straight across a very busy street. Naturally, he gets hit by a car and is killed.

At a fancy dinner Cohn asks McCarthy to introduce him to Vice-president Richard M. Nixon. Winchell now introduces Cohn to a pal of his named G. David Schine. Schine is a wealthy man whose family has a chain of hotels they own and manage. The young man seems very impressed by Cohn and he congratulates him on his work.

Roy Cohn is homosexual and he takes a real interest in G. David Schine. [Little does Roy know that this sexual attraction for the man will come back to haunt him.]

Back to the present. Roy wants to know why Dr. Sanford doesn't like him. Dr. Sanford tells him that an uncle of his was caught up in Roy's mess. His uncle, a nuclear physicist, lost his job and he never worked again.

Flashback. Roy is working with Schine on an attack on subversive books in American libraries. He says there are plenty of books in the libraries written by subversives, like Dashiell Hammett [The Maltese Falcon; The Thin Man.] Reporters ask Schine about his qualifications for the job. Roy speaks up saying that Schine wrote a book on the communist conspiracy and that book is read all over the nation. [That's because the books are put in all of the Schine hotels next to the Bible. Schine's actual book is only eight pages long.]

Cohn and Schine go around the world speaking about their anti-communist cause. Some of the reporters think they are a joke and ask the two men impertinent questions.

Mr. Dashiell Hammett has to come speak with Cohn. He wants Hammett to name names. Hammett just walks out on Cohn and McCarthy.

The army has drafted Schine. The media found out that David was registered in California. The board got scared and transferred him to New York. And now Schine is in the army.

Cohn manipulates McCarthy by telling him that the army deliberately grabbed Schine because the media were onto Schine for Schine helping them catch communists. They are doing everything they can to undermine McCarthy and his whole staff. So McCarthy lets Cohn go after Hammett. And Cohn gets permission to help Schine.

Cohn calls up the secretary of the army Bob Stevens. He tells him that Schine is now in the army. McCarthy wants him to be made an officer and then be assigned to the McCarthy committee. Stevens tells Cohn to put the request through regular channels. Cohn gets impatient with Stevens and tells him: "Bob, just do it."

A poor black woman named Annie Lee Moss appears before the committee. They start questioning her until someone realizes this is not the Annie Lee Moss that they wanted to interrogate. The committee gets egg on its face.

Does that deter Cohn? No. He tells the poor woman that she's going to jail for perjury. Finally, a decent person on the committee speaks up and says they should just let this unfortunate woman go. McCarthy excuses the woman. Cohn is pissed!

Cohn speaks to the secretary of the army, who tells him that Schine can apply to Officer Candidate School as soon as he finishes his basic training. When Cohn learns that all this could take a year, he goes ballistic. He reminds the secretary that he is dealing with McCarthy, McCarthy, McCarthy. And remember this name too: Roy Cohn. "You don't want to make Roy Cohn angry."

When the committee gets the real Annie Lee Moss, Cohn gets nasty with her too. It seems this Cohn fellow hates everybody, guilty or innocent.

McCarthy says they have to call a recess just as Cohn's knives are sharpened. He protests to McCarthy that they can't let this woman go. McCarthy says that they cannot find the witnesses to testify again Moss.

When Roy learns that the FBI told McCarthy that the witnesses will not be available, he says they should go after the FBI next. Cohn won't let up despite what McCarthy tells him. Finally, McCarthy asks Cohn: "What are you trying to do to me?"

Roy is on the street trying to hail a cab. A car pulls up next to Cohn and a voice asks if Cohn is the man they call Roy Cohn. Yes. It's J. Edgar Hoover. He tells Roy that the communist agents that Cohn subpoenaed are FBI agents. This matter is in the hands of the FBI and he wants Roy to let it go.

Bob Stevens and Cohn get off a plane and there waiting for Cohn is G. David Shine. Stevens tells Cohn that David is going overseas with the army. Cohn angrily says they had a deal, but Stevens says they never had any such deal. Roy threatens Stevens once again with possible retribution.

Cohn is really happy to see Schine. He arranges for a photo to be taken of Schine with the secretary of defense and an army colonel.

The army has in its possession 34 pages of telephone calls from Cohn mostly pressuring the army to do his bidding. One of the calmer heads in the room tells McCarthy and Cohn: "You're about to be ambushed on the way to your own ambush."

The calmer man known as Ed tells McCarthy that the army feels it has been wronged because Cohn has been harassing them. And all this is becaus4e of a special relationship between Cohn and Schine. Others on the committee say to drop the charges against the army and drop Cohn. McCarthy says he will not back down from the army.

Winchell tells the public about the fight of the century with Senator McCarthy and Roy Cohn on one side and the United States Army, and more specifically Robert Stevens, on the other side. Winchell is backing McCarthy.

Representing the army is a smart lawyer named Joseph Welch. Cohn is sworn in. It's now Welch against Cohn. Cohn uses part of that photo of Schine together with Bob Stevens to show that the two men were on good relations with each other.

Welch accuses Cohn of doctoring the photo. The real photo was of the three military men and that photo shows Stevens not looking at Schine, but rather the colonel across from Stevens. Welch has got Cohn now, doctoring evidence.

To go after Welch, McCarthy says that Welch has a communist working within his law firm. This person was part of the legal bulwark of the Communist Party. McCarthy says he wasn't going to bring this matter up, but he has been bothered at Mr. Welch's insinuations about Mr. Cohn.

And now for the coup de grace. Speaking slowly, Mr. Welch says: "Until this moment, I never really gauged your recklessness or your cruelty. Fred Fisher is beginning what looks to be a brilliant career with us. Now when I asked him to come here and assist us he told me that in college he briefly belonged to the Lawyers Guild, the organization to which you refer. I told him, 'I just don't think I'm going to use you on this case because it might go out over the networks and that would hurt like the Dickens.' So, senator, I sent him back to Boston. Little did I dream that you would be so cruel and so reckless as to do injury to this lad. '"

He continues: "Let us not assassinate this lad any further, senator, You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you no sense of decency?"

For this Welch gets a big round of applause from the audience. And there's nothing the committee chairman can do about it.

Back to the present. Cohn imagines that a whole crowd of witnesses to his comedown are gathered in his room. Welch says that he never made an issue of homosexuality with Cohn: "But shame, Mr. Cohn, for persecuting in public those who in private are no different than you."

Flashback. McCarthy blames Cohn for his downfall. He is especially mad about the G. David Shine fiasco. But Cohn won't take any responsibility for the injustice that the two of them did together. McCarthy says: "Look what you did to me." Cohn leaves the room.

1955. Cohn is a very good lawyer. He buys a yacht.

In the courthouse client Iva Schlesinger raves about the divorce settlement Cohn got for her. She says he's the best lawyer in New York. So Roy asks Iva for a loan of $100,000 dollars. She gladly agrees to the loan.

John F. Kennedy wins the 1960 election for the President of the United States of America.

Cohn introduces Winchell to Congressman Neil Gallagher. Winchell says Kennedy is going to make brother Bobby the Attorney General. Cohn says he can work with anyone, even the Kennedys.

Eight FBI agents go to search the house of Roy Cohn. Hoover's life partner is with the group. He extends Mr. Hoover's invitation to Roy to join them for dinner tonight in Washington, D.C.

Hoover tells Roy that he has upset Kennedy's brother, the attorney general. Cohn says that Bobby is going to come after Hoover himself. And Cohn asks if there is any way he can be of help to Hoover? Hoover plays a tape of Martin Luther King in a motel having sex with a white woman (which really infuriates the racist Hoover). Hoover says he will give the tape to Cohn and asks what can Roy do with such a tape? Cohn starts thinking with a gleam in his eyes.

Cohn is going to bring Robert Kennedy up before Neil Gallagher's committee on individual privacy to ask him about issuing orders to the FBI to keep MLK under complete surveillance, including the use of tape recorders. He tells Congressman Neil Gallagher about his plans, but Gallagher is appalled at the very idea.  Gallagher says everyone knows Hoover has tapes on all kinds of people. Everyone in government knows this. Gallagher walks away from Cohn. Roy tells him he hopes Gallagher doesn't have any skeletons in his closets, because they have a nasty way of coming to light. Gallagher now tells Cohn that this was a threat, so he never wants to see or talk to Cohn again.

Cohn calls J. Edgar Hoover to report that Gallagher said that Cohn was threatening him. "It's clear he doesn't have the guts to go against the Kennedys." Hoover makes sure he has the man's name writes down the name of Neil Gallagher in his little black book.

Iva telephones Cohn to ask him to pay her back her $100,000 dollar loan to him. She says that in his letter to her, he claims that the money was payment for legal services rendered. Cohn has to get off the phone fast because here comes Gallagher and he's mad as hell.

Hoover planted evidence to tie Gallagher in with the mob. The story is on the front page of the newspaper and the story includes dead bodies in Gallagher's basement. He says that his whole career and reputation are now ruined.

Gallagher has written a little speech about Hoover and Tolson being homosexual lovers. Cohn tells Hoover that Gallagher intends to read his speech everyday in Congress until election day. Hoover will now back off Gallagher and tell Life Magazine to print a retraction of the story of bodies in Gallagher's basement.

Even if Hoover had to let go of Gallagher, Cohn still tries to get Hoover to go after the Kennedys. Hoover tells him it's time for him to leave.

Back to the present. Roy talks with Bobby Kennedy and tells him that he knows that Kennedy is going after Hoffa and then Cohn.

USA versus Roy Marcus Cohn, 1968. The charges against Cohn are bribing, intimidating and threatening witnesses; false testimony in a court of law; manufacturing evidence; giving evasive, fictitious, vague, false, misleading and manufactured testimony; and corruptly by threats and offers, attempting to influence, impede and frustrate investigations by the Department of Justice.

Cohn is absolutely trying to turn the court case into a circus. He constantly objects to the court's proceedings, standing up on chairs, mocking the witnesses, etc. The judge tells him that he is perilously close to a charge of contempt of court.

At a house boat party Peter comes over to talk with Roy. Peter tries to cheer him up concerning his court case: "I don't think a first class bastard like you will get beat by a bunch of amateurs."

Cohn busts into his mother's house shouting: "I beat the bastards!" He runs upstairs to her bedroom and finds her dead laying on her bed.

Cohn and Peter spread mother's ashes into a river.

1972. The I.O.U. from Iva. Iva comes charging into Cohn's office saying: "You stole my money, lied to me." She says she still has a signed I.O.U. from Roy. Roy gives her a piece of free advice: being right is never enough in a courtroom. Iva slaps him and says we'll see about that!

Cohn is looking sickly now. Peter accidentally cuts Roy's face while Peter is giving Roy a shave. Then the cut will not coagulate properly and in a short time. Roy starts panicking. Peter goes with him down to see the doctor about the cut.

Cohn's limo driver tells Cohn and Peter that the state of New York is bringing disbarment proceedings against Cohn. And they mentioned Iva Schlesinger.

Back to the present. Cohn says he has to get out of bed because they are trying to disbar him.  Ethel Rosenberg tells him that the trial is over and Cohn was disbarred.

Ethel asks him why he went after her in court? Cohn says: "I killed you for the headlines, for the fucking headlines."

Kaplan comments that Cohn never even found a communist.

A black, female juror on the jury during the witness tampering and false evidence case gives Cohn a drink of water. Cohn is a bit frightened to see her. Cohn didn't want her on the jury because he said that black people hate him. The sweet woman tells him: "I was the only juror who would've saved you."

Cohn's mother intervenes to complain that her son threw her ashes in the East River! She says it's a river  in which a person wouldn't even let his dog swim.

Cohn's dad says that his son made himself into a monster. Cohn admits he was a Jew who prosecuted fellow Jews and a gay that crucified gays.

Cohn is alone now and Peter comes in to see him. Roy dies. Peter is the only one upset at Cohn's death.

Doctor Stanford asks Peter what were Cohn's words. Peter says: "Tell me the name of the judge."


Disbarred, Roy Cohn died of AIDS in 1986. His boat burned and sank in 1980. The IRS confiscated his houses.

Senator McCarthy died in office of alcoholism in 1957.

Hoover died in office of underdetermined causes. He left everything to Clyde Tolson.

Clyde Tolson died in 1975. His obituary appeared with a picture of the wrong man.

Joseph Welch became a movie actor, playing the judge in "Anatomy of a Murder". He died in 1960.

G. David Schine married, became a movie producer and presides over his family hotels.

Peter returned to his native New Zealand.

Iva Schlesinger lived happily ever after.



Terrific film.  It shows that some really sick and very ambitious people will take advantage of the people being victimized in order to become famous, rich and powerful.  That's the case with Roy Cohn.  With the help of his selfish mother, I believe Cohn became a psychopath.  He never thought about the impact of his evil deeds on people falsely accused of being communists or fellow travelers.  He took advantage of people without ever feeling any guilt about it.  Frankly, he became a heartless, evil lawyer that preyed on people. 

Cohn's father was a judge and a very good man.  He tried to teach his son what is right and wrong, but he himself was dominated by his own wife, who also inappropriately dominated her son's life.  Dad was a Jewish liberal who hated what his son was doing even to many of dad's own friends and associates.  He was decent.  His boy was not. 

The film really shows just how disgusting Roy Cohn was.  It's just one example after another of upsetting behavior on Roy's part.  You have to be a psychopath to do what Cohn did to even his fellow Jews and fellow gays. 

The film says that McCarthy could not control Cohn and that Cohn often went farther in his harassment of others than McCarthy would have.   In the film McCarthy even says to Roy, look at what your doing to me.  Ah, what a conniver and manipulator that Cohn was. 

The film covers Cohn's role in the witch hunts for communists and show that Cohn was dealing with the highest officials in America.  He knew Hoover and the Kennedys and got involved with the fights between Hoover and the Kennedys on the side of the duplicitous Hoover. 

James Woods was just terrific as Roy Cohn.  In fact, they had a lot of good actors and actresses in the film, many of which are well know.  I can't really complain about anybody's acting. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 




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