Citizen Cohn (1992) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Biopics are a tricky matter. They almost always include some elements which have been fabricated. At the far extreme, some biopics include fanciful, obviously imaginary pseudo-history. Immortal Beloved and Amadeus fall into this category. At the most reasonable end of the spectrum, other biopics simply fabricate dialogue and thoughts which attempt to recreate reality as accurately as is possible without a precise road map. An example of a responsible fictionalized biopic might be The Greatest Game Ever Played. There is no such thing as a purely objective biopic. By definition, they all require some kind of editorial direction from the writer. At the very least, the screenwriter has to choose what to retain and what to discard in the process of presenting a two-hour synthesis of several decades. Even if an entire screenplay were to consist only of the actual words of the characters, the author would still be inserting himself by deciding which words to use. At the very most, the screenwriter has to create all the dialogue and details of a life known to us only in broadest outlines.

In evaluating the intellectual honesty of biopics, I try to focus primarily on the extent to which they expect me to believe them. It does not matter to me that Amadeus is blatantly fictional, or that Immortal Beloved is purely a theoretical explanation of an historical mystery. Those stories do not pretend to be accurate history. On the other hand, The Greatest Game Ever Played and The Amityville Horror do purport to accuracy. In fact, they derive much of their emotional power and virtually all of their appeal from the fact that their stories are supposed to be true. The degree to which they are true is directly correlated to our degree of interest. If they are true, we are curious and impressed. If they are fictional, we would assume that we are watching just another grade-B horror film, or syrupy underdog story. 

There are other criteria to be employed in any evaluation of a biographical story.

  • If the story includes fictionalized elements, to what degree are they necessary to make the overall point?
  • If the story includes fictionalized elements, to what degree are they necessary to create coherence?
  • If the story includes fictionalized elements, to what degree do they malign other historical figures unnecessarily?
  • To what extent does the portrait omit other elements of the person's life which would balance off the portrayal?

Within the various parameters described above, Citizen Cohn is a miserable failure in terms of intellectual honesty.

1. It purports to be historical, and exudes a biographical feel, yet includes many, many elements which are hypothetical, false, misleading, and even libelous.

2. A fictional demonization of Roy Cohn is unnecessary. The man was a monster, and that is evident in the things he really did and said.

3. There was no need to create hypothetical dialogue to reproduce Roy Cohn's life. He lived that life on the public record, and his own words are sufficient to condemn him.

4. The script takes pot-shots at other historical figures with accusations which may, in some cases, be completely false. In other cases, the overall substance of the portrayals may be true, but there is no convincing evidence to support them.

Some examples of gossip posing as history:

Roy Cohn standing on the defense bench and orating, soap-box style, in the courtroom? Where the hell did this even come from?

Roy's relationship with his father? Albert Cohn was said to have doted on Roy, and to have involved him in legal discussions from the time Roy was an extremely precocious child.

J. Edgar Hoover backing down from a blackmail threat to expose his homosexual relationship with Clyde Tolson?  As The Straight Dope points out, "Appearances notwithstanding, no one has found concrete evidence that the two men (Hoover and Tolson) were anything other than buds." And a lot of people have tried! This portion of the film is based entirely on gossip, and the specific incident in question seems to have no basis at all in reality.

The homosexual relationship between Cohn and G. David Schine remains purely speculative, and no proof of it has ever emerged. Cohn seems to have been in love, but there has never been any evidence to suggest that Schine was gay. He known as a wealthy playboy who was romantically linked to several beautiful starlets of the 50's. He later married a former Miss Universe, Hillevi Rombin, and fathered six children. By the way, Schine once wrote and directed a documentary called That's Action, which was screened at Cannes in 1977.

Julius Rosenberg was not innocent of the crime of espionage. There are legitimate questions of nuance, and certain mitigating facts, and Cohn was guilty of prosecutorial misconduct in the case, but the bottom line is that Rosenberg tried to help give nuclear weapons to Stalin, who was arguably the greatest monster in the history of mankind. It is hard to imagine a worse crime, no matter how noble the criminal's intentions, or how useless his actual information. I have never seen any good evidence that Ethel Rosenberg was her husband's accomplice, except that Nikita Khrushchev's memoirs credit both Rosenbergs for their "very significant help in accelerating the production of our atomic bomb." Aleksander Feklisov, the KGB agent who recruited Julius, said that Ethel was "probably" aware of her husband's espionage activities, but Feklisov never met with Ethel and felt that Ethel was innocent of anything besides (probable) guilty knowledge. "She had nothing to do with this -- she was completely innocent. I think she knew, but for that you don't kill people," he said. (Feklisov dismissed Khrushchev's comments as coming from the mind of a simpleton and a "silly man.")

On the other hand, Julius could, at any time, have saved Ethel's life by saying, "I worked with the Soviet Union, but my wife had nothing to do with it." If he had done so, he could have spared her life. In fact, a confession might have brokered complete freedom for Ethel. Given that he was actually guilty, why else would he choose to bring Ethel down with him, thus dooming their children to orphanhood? He chose not to, and she presumably chose to die alongside him. I find this hard to understand if she was innocent. Given the premise that he was a spy, one must ask, "If she was innocent, what was she dying for?"

Of course, the script of Citizen Cohn was written before Feklisov's revelations, and before the VENONA documents came to light, but that does not allow us to pronounce a "not guilty" verdict for intellectual dishonesty. The bottom line, in simplest terms, is this: Roy Cohn was an egomaniacal snake whose actual deeds were almost universally reprehensible. It's hard for people to find anything good to say about him. He was a Shakespearian villain in the flesh, a real-life Iago. Why make things up when the unvarnished truth will suffice?

Three cheers to the casting director, or whoever chose James Woods to play Roy Cohn. Perfect selection. Roy Cohn was brilliant, arrogant, insensitive, contemptuous, verbose, combative, abrasive, intimidating, venomous, and completely lacking in vulnerability. He was always the smartest man in the room, and the meanest as well. I have no idea whether James Woods is really like that, but it is the exact public persona that he exudes - a brilliant guy, but not a warm and fuzzy one. The official James Woods public image already was Roy Cohn! It was a role waiting for Woods, and he nailed it. The script was complicated by the fact that the entire story was told in flashback from Cohn's deathbed, as he goes in and out of dreams, recollections, and reality. Cohn died of AIDS-related complications while denying to the end that he was dying, that he had AIDS, and that he was gay. (In fact, Cohn was actively crusading against gay rights from his deathbed!) It would have been difficult for anyone but Woods to avoid winning sympathy while dying in pain and denial. A more vulnerable actor could easily have crossed over into the realm of pathetic or even empathetic, but Woods managed to keep Cohn arrogant and despicable to the end.

This is an interesting portrayal of Cohn that falls short of greatness because of its ideological and irresponsible disregard for facts. My criticism lies in the fact that it purports to be true and is not, thus leaving the viewer with inaccurate ideas. Some of the story is true, some isn't, and the script places real events and dialogue side-by-side with gossip, thus blurring the line between them. If you can ignore that and accept its gossipy world as one built upon a valid use of dramatic license, you might find it both powerful and quite entertaining.



  • No features



Female: none

Male: there is a brief scene at Schine's army physical. Anonymous buns.

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The People Vote ...

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, it's a C. Brilliant performance by James Woods as Roy Cohn. The script is effective in many ways, but you have to realize that it is essentially gossip masquerading as history, disguised by its presence side-by-side with real history.

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