The Apprentice review: Trump film avoids caricature, but hits hard with major allegations

Iranian-Danish director Ali Abbasi's follow-up to Holy Spider is a compelling but underwhelming take on the divisive US president's early years

Sebastian Stan, right, plays a young Donald Trump in The Apprentice. Photo: Scythia Films
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Premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, The Apprentice is arguably one of the most intriguing films in the official competition. A biopic of Donald Trump, it covers his real estate years before he turned to politics and entered the White House as one of the most controversial presidents in living memory.

Sebastian Stan, the Marvel star who is becoming increasingly diverse in his output of late, plays Trump. He avoids acting out a caricature, even if the script sometimes can’t resist an attack on Trump's vanity (“your face looks like an orange”, cries his wife Ivana, played by Maria Bakalova, the Oscar-nominated star of the Borat sequel).

THE APPRENTICE

Director: Ali Abbasi

Starring: Sebastian Stan, Maria Bakalova, Jeremy Strong

Rating: 3/5

Directed by the Iranian-Danish filmmaker Ali Abbasi, who has already brought us the unusual fable Border (2018) and the Iranian serial killer drama Holy Spider (2022), this marks a considerable step-up in scale and ambition. Spanning the 70s and 80s, Abbasi and his team capture the ugliness of New York, “the greatest city in the world”, back in the day.

Early on, a passer-by on the street tries to offer his wife to Trump, as the film briefly feels like one of those scenes in Taxi Driver where Travis Bickle surveys the human flotsam and jetsam passing him by.

An ambitious real estate developer, when the story picks up, Trump feels he can do more to modernise the Big Apple than anyone else, scattering the landscape with places like the Grand Hyatt and the famed Trump Tower.

But, as suggested by the title (a nod to the entrepreneurial reality TV show Trump would later front), he needs help. Enter Roy Cohn (Succession’s Jeremy Strong), an impossibly well-connected attorney who has famous clients and seemingly can help Trump’s family company, with a potentially damaging legal issue with the NAACP.

Shaping Trump, as he tells him the three main rules of business (maxims like “admit nothing, deny everything”), Cohn is a persuasive figure, superbly performed by Strong in a role that’ll likely get compared to his Succession character Kendall Roy. But inevitably Trump outgrows his mentorship, as fame and success swells.

At one point he meets Andy Warhol, blithely unaware of who the pop culture icon is. “Making money is art,” he tells the artist, and it’s this that seems to characterise Gabriel Sherman’s script, showing how Trump likes nothing more than striking deals and being a winner.

As such, his resentment for weak individuals around him festers, including his substance-abusing brother Freddy, Cohn and the ex-model-turned-interior-designer Ivana, who he spends most of the time disparaging for her cosmetic surgery (which he encouraged).

There is one shocking scene where he forces himself upon her, an alleged assault that was first reported in Harry Hurt III’s book Lost Tycoon: The Many Lives of Donald Trump. The only thing he cares about is courting America, “a country that has tremendous potential”, and building an ever-expanding empire.

Of course the film nods to Trump’s White House years, as he fondles a pin badge from Ronald Reagan’s campaign promising to “make America great again”. But while it’s an exciting watch, boasting an energetic feel and a soundtrack that includes Pet Shop Boys, New Order and Baccara, it arguably only surface skims Trump.

Perhaps we can never really get inside a man who plays so fast and loose with the truth, but the film gradually runs out of steam in the second half, despite showing what a ruthless and venal character he can be. In the end, it’s a story about the manifestation of horrifying ambition, and for that, it’s to be applauded.

Updated: June 13, 2024, 7:02 AM
THE APPRENTICE

Director: Ali Abbasi

Starring: Sebastian Stan, Maria Bakalova, Jeremy Strong

Rating: 3/5