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Cannes 2024 review: ‘The Apprentice’ – Donald Trump: The formative years

The Apprentice
The Apprentice Copyright Cannes Film Festival
Copyright Cannes Film Festival
By David Mouriquand
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The already controversial Donald Trump origin story hits Cannes - and the Trump campaign has vowed to sue.

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What – or who – turned young real-estate executive Donald Trump into the tangerine menace who just refuses to go away?

This is the question that drives Ali Abbasi’s English-language debut The Apprentice – a conventional but compelling biopic scripted by journalist Gabriel Sherman, which focuses on the formative years of the man who would one day worm himself into the White House.

We meet The Donald (Sebastian Stan) in a Manhattan club, where he attempts to impress his date by listing some of the guests there. He’s awkward, out-of-his-depth, and crippled with daddy issues, struggling to make a name for himself in the world of real estate. In other words, he’s in dire need of guidance.

That comes when he is summoned to the table of Roy Cohn (Jeremy Strong), a ruthless lawyer and cutthroat fixer who is amused by Trump.

“I like this kid – I feel sorry for him.”

Cohn takes him under this wing, fostering a disciple and mentor dynamic, and imparts the three golden rules to live by – because “everybody wants to suck a winner’s cock.”

Rule 1: Attack, attack, attack. Rule 2: Admit nothing, deny everything. Rule 3 (the most important rule): Claim victory and never admit defeat.

All sound a bit too familiar for comfort?

Thus begins an odd couple chronicle that lays the foundations of an empire built on lies and deception. Cohn helps Trump and his heartless real estate baron father Fred (Martin Donovan) by solving their legal woes regarding the Fair Housing Act, and assists his young apprentice in renovating the crumbling Commodore Hotel into Trump Tower.

But as these stories so often go, especially when it comes to the dark arts, Mephistopheles is soon overtaken by the eager student. 

Abbasi zeroes in on the early stages of Trump’s ascension by showing him grow stronger as Cohn weakens - in part due to an AIDS diagnosis. This parallel trajectory isn’t particularly subtle but laudably avoids easy caricature, as the director isn’t interested in a Trump hit job or presenting these people as monstrous – rather as exploitative parasites who create their own realities in which there are only “killers and losers”.

Stan is excellent as Trump, convincingly taking the character from obsequious wannabe to out-of-touch gremlin. Fresh from his Silver Bear-winning turn in A Different Man, the actor dons more prosthetics but dodges any kind of cheap mimicry by nailing the mannerisms and slowly drip-feeding more tics and verbal quirks as the runtime progresses. And as the amoral narcissism builds.

His skill is matched by Strong’s throughout. The Succession actor manages to give layers to a complicated character: Cohn is a loathsome ghoul who boasts about how he orchestrated the death penalty for Ethel Rosenberg, but also a self-loathing homosexual who realises he has unwittingly unleashed a monster. The way in which the actor manages to find pathos in the irredeemable is one of the film’s greatest strengths.

The Apprentice works best as a performance-propelled portrait of so-called American exceptionalism, and while it mostly deals in known facts, it is guaranteed to spark controversy. There is no risk that it will endear audiences to Trump, who is portrayed as a disloyal and incompetent shyster, but its timing is an unavoidable talking point, considering Trump’s second presidential campaign. The Trump campaign has already vowed to sue over a scene in which Trump rapes his wife Ivana (an excellent but sidelined Maria Bakalova).

The alleged 1989 incident of spousal rape was previously detailed in the couple’s divorce proceedings. Trump denied and Ivana later refuted the claim ahead of his 2015 presidential campaign. Here, it is shown in unambiguous terms.

“We will be filing a lawsuit to address the blatantly false assertions from these pretend filmmakers,” the Trump campaign’s Steven Cheung declared.

For context, at least 25 women have accused Trump of sexual misconduct since the 1970s.

Cheung added: “As with the illegal Biden Trials, this is election interference by Hollywood elites, who know that President Trump will retake the White House and beat their candidate of choice because nothing they have done has worked.”

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If that doesn’t send shivers down your spine, we don’t know what will.

Who will be The Apprentice ’s audience? That remains to be seen, as there’s the risk of apathy considering Trump still remains unavoidable in politics. And it's only going to get worse as 2024 continues. 

Will The Apprentice open any eyes? There’s little doubt that it won't have much sway in changing minds; it will just allow audiences to see Trump for who he has always been.

What is certain, however, is that when it comes to next year’s awards season, Stan and Strong’s names will be part of the conversation. And you can bet that the amoral scammer-in-chief will probably try to claim some credit.

The Apprentice premieres at the Cannes Film Festival in Competition.

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