The Apprentice Review: A Subtly Humiliating Look At The Rise Of Trump [CANNES 2024]

Reviews Movie Reviews

the apprentice review: a subtly humiliating look at the rise of trump [cannes 2024]
Tailored Films EDITORS' RATING : 8 / 10

Pros

  • Strong performances from Jeremy Strong, Sebastian Stan, and Maria Bakalova
  • Resists the temptation of humanizing Trump or turning him into a supervillain

Cons

  • A few too many winks at Trump's future political career for cheap knowing laughs

To say that it's tricky to release a Donald Trump biopic in an election year while the beleaguered demagogue faces a glut of criminal and civil charges is perhaps a bit of an understatement. Chess is tricky. Peace in the Middle East is tricky. This is a horse of a different color. Some might argue that any film revolving around Trump is going to be problematic, because it runs the risk of glorifying or forcing audiences to empathize with them. How do you even make a Donald Trump movie without descending into "Saturday Night Live" territory, complete with an over-the-top vocal impersonation? Well, if you have to make one, this is probably pretty close to the best approach. Sebastian Stan, Jeremy Strong, and Maria Bakalova each put in interesting, dynamic performances, and director Ali Abbasi goes to great lengths to build a nuanced yet abjectly humiliating portrait of the controversial figure.

When Donald Trump (Stan) first meets the hotshot lawyer Roy Cohn (Strong), he is little more than the second son of a mediocre real estate mogul, obsessed with the idea of success as an object unto itself. Cohn, a ruthless political player with half of New York City in his pocket, senses a similar sociopathy in Trump and takes him under his wing. First he helps him with a pesky housing discrimination lawsuit, then he manages to convince the City of New York to give Trump's hotel construction project a tax abatement. But oh, the monsters we make. It isn't long before Trump's ambition has outstripped even Cohn's considerable appetite for power, to the detriment of ... well, pretty much the entire world.

The depiction of Trump

the apprentice review: a subtly humiliating look at the rise of trump [cannes 2024]
Sonia Moskowitz/Getty Images

When you watch the first few minutes of "The Apprentice," there's almost a sense of repulsion as Sebastian Stan speaks as Trump. "Am I actually watching this?" you may ask yourself. "Have they really cast one of the most handsome stars working today to do an impression of Trump?" But director Ali Abbasi's intentions for the character become clear almost immediately, and Stan effortlessly slides into the role. The depiction of Trump plays into a sense of internal delusion — especially once he's more successful, Stan portrays him with the supreme confidence of an idiot who thinks he's the coolest, smartest, handsomest guy in any room.

There are moments where Abbasi sets up these hero shots where Trump clearly thinks he looks like a movie star, but they're purposefully just the slightest bit off, and he actually looks tremendously stupid. Trump is often begrudgingly praised for his charisma, but "The Apprentice" captures how awkward his interactions with other people actually are, as though he fundamentally does not know how to be a human. Stan doesn't fall into the trap of imitating Trump too much: the patter and cadence of his vocal patterns are there, but he doesn't get caught up in doing the voice, which is 100% the right choice.

It's perhaps a cruel irony on Abbasi's part that even in a movie about Trump, Trump isn't the alpha of the production. That honor goes to "Succession" star Jeremy Strong as Roy Cohn, who owns every inch of the screen, blisteringly confident at the top of his game and hollow-eyed and vulnerable after he falls from grace. The truth of the matter is that Strong's performance is so powerful that whenever Cohn is on-screen, Trump is just a footnote, and that's probably one of the things about the film that will make him angriest. Do you know how bad of a person you have to be when Cohn, the actual devil, comes across as more sympathetic than you? Even the title of the film, "The Apprentice," is a subtle jab. It seems at first as though it's named for the TV show that turned Donald Trump from a real estate guy to a celebrity, but it's actually a reminder that even the Trumpian qualities he values most in himself are a mere imitation of another man who, let's be honest, did it better.

A tale of withering contempt for its subject

the apprentice review: a subtly humiliating look at the rise of trump [cannes 2024]
Sonia Moskowitz/Getty Images

Between Jeremy Strong's Roy Cohn and Maria Bakalova's Ivana Trump, there's no end to the withering contempt for our ersatz hero. The Oscar-nominated "Borat 2" star doesn't get as much screen time as we would like, but she heartbreakingly depicts the less-than-romantic trajectory of their relationship as she comes to realize that she's trapped in a marriage with an emotionally stunted man incapable of genuine affection for anyone. It's a cage of her own design, but Bakalova brings such heart to the role that we can't help but feel for Ivana.

The only real misstep of "The Apprentice" as far as we can tell is that sometimes it tries to get a bit too clever. Do we really need scenes where we get Donald Trump's initial reaction to the "Make America Great Again" slogan back when Ronald Reagan tried to use it in the 1980s? Probably not. Nor does it add a lot to the film to watch an interview where he jokes about eventually running for president. When Ali Abbasi gets too sly about these kinds of moments, it takes the audience out of the film for a split second, bringing them unpleasantly back to the current reality of Trump's political career.

Aside from these minor issues, it's almost shocking how well Abbasi plays "The Apprentice." It would have been a mistake to expend too much effort in trying to humanize Trump, or to make him into a supervillain, which we can only imagine he would have loved. Instead, it's subtly undermining, making him look blustering and even weak — a grotesque monster, to be sure, but one that's not nearly as impressive as he imagines himself to be. Sebastian Stan puts in a well-judged performance as Trump, off-putting in a way that only Hollywood stars freed from the prison of leading man status can manage. But it's the incomparable Strong who steals the show as Cohn, the Pygmalion who carves Trump out of spray tan and ill-fitting suits to make him into the monster he becomes.

"The Apprentice" premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival. Wide release plans have yet to be announced.

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