Cannes 2024 review: The Apprentice (Ali Abbasi)

“While accomplished on a technical level, and featuring a frightening performance by Jeremy Strong as Trump’s kingmaker and long-time attorney Roy Cohn, The Apprentice isn’t insightful enough to be truly interesting, nor hard-hitting enough to ruffle Trump’s combover.”

The American people have the right to know if their president is a crook.” When you open a biopic on Donald Trump with a Nixon speech, you set expectations. Sadly The Apprentice, Ali Abbasi’s film on the former US President, doesn’t fulfil those expectations in their entirety, mainly because it doesn’t tread much new ground. As a character study of the real estate entrepreneur-turned-president, the film successfully paints Trump as a narcissistic, disloyal figure, ironic as he demands total loyalty from his followers, but for a satire the criticism is too subtle and too often jabs at Trump’s ego instead of digging into any true crookedness, as Nixon would have it. While accomplished on a technical level, and featuring a frightening performance by Jeremy Strong as Trump’s kingmaker and long-time attorney, The Apprentice isn’t insightful enough to be truly interesting, nor hard-hitting enough to ruffle Trump’s combover.

As we first meet Donald Trump (Sebastian Stan), he collects rent door to door in his father Fred’s Coney Island apartment complex, Trump Village. The Trumps are under investigation by the government for allegedly racially discriminating against black tenants. Donald crosses paths with Roy Cohn (Jeremy Strong), one of New York’s most prominent attorneys, a shark who bobs his head like a pigeon. Cohn introduces Trump to all the dubious (to say the least) movers and shakers of the city, and grooms the then still-impressionable Donald to be the powerful real estate tycoon he first became known as. Cohn, a homosexual, invites Donald to his debauched parties with the rich and powerful, but Trump feels like a fish out of water. As Cohn manages to have the city waive taxes on the Hyatt group so that Trump can build his first luxury hotel, Donald steadily gains confidence and cockiness, and the respect from his father he so craves. This helps him win the hand of Ivana Zelníčková (Maria Bakalova), a model with interior designer dreams. As Trump’s wealth grows, at the expense of the people building his properties and the financiers that back him, his ego inflates to untenable proportions. He cuts off his older brother Fred Jr., a pilot who can’t handle the pressure of their demanding dad, and loses interest in Ivana. When she mocks him, he assaults her and rapes her on the floor of their Trump Tower apartment (an incident Ivana later would deny happened). When he finally breaks with Cohn, who is dying of AIDS and was the only person who seemed to have enough influence to rein Trump in to some extent, the final product, the Trump that we know now, is born.

Sebastian Stan looks nothing like Donald Trump but does a great impression, right down to the pursing of the lips. What works best in his performance is the transformation from the somewhat timid, boyish Donald to the bluffing bully Trump, with both his vocal inflections and body language (in particular the hand gestures) steadily morphing into those of the man that was once president of the United States. Stan’s is a very technical performance, as the script doesn’t allow for a very dramatic personal arc; the relationship with Ivana is sold short, with Trump’s courtship of the model taking up most screentime in the relationship. As the film whirls past important moments in Trump’s burgeoning career, there are few moments of reflection and insight into the man himself. His tough father Fred (Martin Donovan), who teaches his boys to be killers, seems to be the sole influence responsible for Trump’s ruthless drive, but one feels there has to be more than that for someone to become so narcissistic and a pathological liar. The Apprentice doesn’t delve into this, as it’s more interested in presenting a who’s who of famous New York movers and shakers, from former mayor Ed Koch to mobster Tony Salerno, and from lobbyist Roger Stone to art legend Andy Warhol.

While Stan’s performance is good, most of the film belongs to Jeremy Strong as the vulture-like Roy Cohn. Cohn teaches Trump the three rules of winning, which Trump shamelessly claims for his own after Cohn’s death: always attack, deny everything, and never admit defeat. The echoes of these rules have reverberated until our current times, and it is interesting to see where Trump got them from, the emotionless Cohn played by a frighteningly dead-eyed Strong. While The Apprentice as a whole is too weak to make a dent come Oscar time, its best chance is definitely Strong.

The cinematography, courtesy of Kasper Tuxen, is another aspect that should garner awards attention, although work like this rarely gets nominated. He gives The Apprentice the look and feel of a VHS tape that is played one too many times, with a grain well-suited to the ’70s and ’80s timeframe the film is set in. The soundtrack is era-appropriate, with the ubiquitous Blue Monday making its umpteenth appearance in film, but it is this sort of technical work that mostly drives the interest for The Apprentice. What Abbasi unfortunately fails to do is give us a peek behind the mask. Obviously Trump did not cooperate with the production, but there is no reason not to bend the truth a little; Trump himself suggests in the film (and still does to this day) that the truth is malleable. What we are unfortunately left with is the portrait of a pathetic man, a portrait that takes potshots at his orange skin, his fading hair, his penile dysfunction (courtesy of copious amounts of diet pills), and other personal attacks that would certainly hurt Trump’s ego (if he ever saw the film), but do very little to dent his reputation. It is the level of late-night talk show monologues, and while the film does convincingly show that Trump is indeed a crook and a shyster, it is the low personal blows that stick the most.