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HBO presents
Citizen Cohn (1992)

Senator Joseph McCarthy: What are you trying to do to me?
Ray Cohn: I'm trying to make a great man out of you.

- Joe Don Baker, James Woods

Review By: Dan Heaton   
Published: August 31, 2001

Stars: James Woods, Joe Don Baker
Other Stars: Joseph Bologna, Frederic Forrest, Ed Flanders, Lee Grant, Pat Hingle
Director: Frank Pierson

Manufacturer: Wamo
MPAA Rating: R for (contains language and adult material)
Run Time: 01h:51m:30s
Release Date: July 10, 2001
UPC: 026359082627
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B- BB-B C-

DVD Review

Roy Cohn (James Woods) stretches his neck and emits a scowl that indicates he's ready for battle. Senator Joseph McCarthy (Joe Don Baker) has inaugurated the Red Scare witch-hunts in the name of patriotism, and no one is safe from their wrath. Cohn serves as the driving force behind the attacks and becomes America's flaming sword to battle the influx of communism. Yet little of his work has any basis in fact, and the allegations are fueled by misguided fears. Even when they realize the accused citizens are innocent, Cohn refuses to concede and searches for any minor infraction to destroy their lives. Surprisingly, his tactics succeed, and McCarthy becomes a driving political force in the early 1950s. This is not one of the shining eras of American history.

Citizen Cohn follows the tumultuous life of this extremely unlikable man who persecuted countless groups in search of fame and glory. James Woods masterfully conveys the glee Cohn experiences in crushing the lives of others to increase his own lofty place in the world. Early in his adult life, he prosecutes and gains the death penalty for the Rosenbergs, a harmless-looking couple accused of spying. While their guilt is uncertain, it makes little difference to Cohn in his urgent desire for power. Joe Don Baker plays McCarthy as a bloated, obnoxious buffoon who needs his chief aide in order to succeed in public life. His ridiculous claims and his lists recall the satire of The Manchurian Candidate, where a speaker continually changes the number of communists while giving a speech.

In one of this film's key moments, McCarthy makes a critical blunder in court when he accuses a young, innocent lawyer of being a communist. Joseph Welch (Ed Flanders, Bye Bye Love)óan eloquent, compassionate lawyeróresponds by defending the man and asks, "Have you no sense of decency?" to thunderous applause. The absurdity of McCarthy's brutal tactics hits center stage here, and his power quickly dissipates into nothing. This is the end of the senator's career, but Cohn moves on to even greater heights of corruption in the subsequent years.

Writer David Franzoni (Gladiator, Amistad) depicts Cohn's life in flashbacks from his deathbed in 1986. The story uses the effective device of having the shadows from his past appear to him in the hospital to question his methods. The Rosenbergs badger Cohn about their actual guilt in the espionage trial. His ethical father returns to continue his questioning of his unlawful acts. This form of storytelling tries to show the demons that haunt him on a daily basis, and it works to create an eerie tone of self-loathing. However, it does not make Cohn a sympathetic character, and this is the main problem of this film. Woods gives a remarkable performance, but I could not find any compassion for the plight of this man. He has contracted the AIDS virus and spends his days in intense pain, but it is still extremely difficult to care for him.

Roy Cohn stands as an intriguing, historical figure because of the extreme contradictions between his public and personal life. His father was a respected judge of strong character, but he chose to live on the opposite end of the moral spectrum. Cohn spent much of his time persecuting Jews, even though he grew up as a member of the Jewish faith. One of his prime enemies in public were homosexuals, yet that was his sexual orientation. The answer to these conflicts lies in his lust for power, but this still fails to explain his hatred for so many people. After his time with McCarthy, Cohn made enemies with everyone, including his own companions and the Kennedys. Although this film effectively tracks his life, it still fell a bit short in explaining his motivations. Maybe it's not possible to understand Roy Cohn. James Woods does an excellent job, but it still left me wanting to know more about this troubling, egotistical individual.

Rating for Style: B-
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Citizen Cohn includes a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that presents the film with decent colors and sharpness. However, the picture contains a significant amount of glitches and specs of dirt that lessen its effectiveness. There's also a hazy quality to this presentation that results from a high level of grain in numerous moments. Overall, this transfer is acceptable and has some impressive points, but the problems keep it from being more than mediocre.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: The 2.0-channel Dolby Surround transfer on this disc works nicely with clear dialogue jumping from both sides of the sound field. Ray Cohn speaks at rapid-fire speed with loud, precise wording, and nothing is lost on this well-done track. There's also a decent level of force to this transfer, but it's lessened slightly by the limits of the technology. The sounds resonate sharply and powerfully, but the extra complexity to push them to another level is missing.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 23 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
Packaging: Snapper
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Citizen Cohn is very light on supplements, but it does contain an impressive selection of cast and crew biographies. Each entry covers several pages and has an extensive list of film highlights. The lack of any further extras is disappointing, but this section does provide plenty of background and interesting information. It includes biographies for James Woods, Joe Don Baker, Joseph Bologna, Ed Flanders, Frederic Forrest, director Frank Pierson, and writer David Franzoni.

Extras Grade: C-


Final Comments

Director Frank Pierson (Truman, A Star is Born) injects Citizen Cohn with an energetic urgency during the McCarthy era. However, Roy Cohn's story lacks the same punch when he moves into private practice in the second half. He still exudes his arrogant and destructive egotism, but the events lack the power and clarity of the earlier moments. Overall, this film provides an interesting look at this controversial figure, but it fails to sustain the intensity throughout its running time.


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