The Apprentice (2024) Cannes Film Festival

May 21st, 2024
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir: Ali Abassi | Script: Gabriel Sherman | Cast: Sebastian Stan, Jeremy Strong, Maria Bakalova, Martin Donovan, Catherine McNally, Charlie Carrick, Ben Sullivan, Mark Rendall, Joe Pingue, Jim Monaco, Bruce | Biopic Drama, 120′

“You’re either a killer or a loser” is the advice a young Donald Trump (Sebastian Stan) gets from his acerbic mentor Roy Cohn (Jeremy Strong) in this polarising political biopic written by journalist Gabriel Sherman and directed by Iranian-Danish filmmaker Ali Abassi (Border) and Holy Spider (who is now perhaps best known for his involvement in The Last Of Us). 

Cohn, the lawyer responsible for putting the Rosenbergs on the electric chair and a key figure in the McCarthy witch hunts, offers up three key bits of business advice during The Apprentice – an entertaining romp that zips briskly through its two hours running time sketching out Trump’s early career as an eager apprentice trained under the high-flying lawyer, and eventually trumping him in a tale of machiavellian morals, ethics and business acumen.

There are elements of poetic licence at play here: in other words Sherman plays slightly fast and loose with the facts in fleshing out Trump’s backstory. The result is a fairly even-handed feature that on the one hand sees the US former president as cold-eyed and devious, but on the other opines that these are the very tools of the trade for those wanting to get on in big business – or politics, for that matter. Crucially it also highlights the recent concept of the truth being a construct open to individual perception.

The focus narrows in on Trump from a broad brush opening outlining the corruption of the Nixon years and the inherent dishonesty that is now rife in all circles of power, not least in America. It contrasts the ‘losers’ (those on welfare) with the killers, the ‘unscrupulous’ hard-working income generators during the Reagan presidency that led to the phenomenon of ‘corporate greed’.

The Apprentice sees Trump starting out during the 1970s working for his property magnate father, Fred Trump (Martin Donovan). Dressed in a suit Donald is tasked with doing the rounds to collect rents. One disgruntled tenant throws a pan of boiling water in his face, another swears at him. The family business comes then under fire from a civil rights action alleging discrimination against Black tenants. Cohn wins the case, as his lawyer, with Trump senior claiming: “How can I be racist when I have a Black driver?”

But Donald is determined to make it alone and sets his sights on transforming the downtrodden area around Grand Central Station where he vows to make a success in a project of urban regeneration involving the dilapidated Commodore Hotel, bringing jobs, European tourists and a facelift for Manhattan.

Family wise we also meet Donald’s kindly mother Mary Anne (Catherine McNally), and his brother Freddy (Charlie Carrick) a failed pilot with emotional problems: Fred admits to having been tough on his boys. But Donald is hellbent on success and soon bonds with Cohn after a chance meeting at a fancy Manhattan nightclub frequented by the top flight business community. Working together they soon go from strength to strength in a business alliance with Trump styling himself in the same vein as Cohn with his fast-talking intransigence. His transformation into fully fledged killer who lives by his own standards happens almost overnight and feels a little too fast even given the film’s ample running time. But Stan grasps Trump’s essence charting his character’s transformation from reasonable business man to self-seeking  hardliner.

Trump soon becomes a man who takes his own advice often rubbing Cohn up the wrong way, while at the same time chosing to turn a blind eye to his ‘strange way of life’ and hedonistic habits. Trump’s puritan background sees him gradually distancing himself from the lawyer who berates him for his lack of financial probity. Their relationship eventually sours during the AIDS crisis, although Trump offers an olive branch in the finale.

The marriage to Ivana Zelnickova, against Cohn’s advice, is handled deftly and with some humour. Trump follows Ivana to Aspen to clinch their romance then falls flat on the ice after claiming to be a good skier. The Czech model is a little two sweet and sympathetic despite her purported savvy business sense, but Trump soon tires of her, claiming to find their home life ‘more like coming home to a business partner than a wife’. A shocking episode sees him beating Ivana, but whether this has a factual basis, despite his widely reported misogyny, is uncertain. Stan’s Trump may be polarise public opining in coming across as too likeable but this is surely the essence of a maverick who can charm as well as chastise and here he gives a compelling performance.

With a killer score of hits that just reeks of the ’70s and ’80 and a scuzzy retro texture this is an compulsive portrait of toxic narcissism even more relevant now than it was back in the day.  @MeredithTaylor


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