THE APPRENTICE

May 21, 2024

sebastian stan, the apprentice, jeremy strong, ali abbasi, cannes dispatch, greg williams

Words by JANE CROWTHER


Ali Abbasi’s take on the origins of Donald Trump’s take-no-prisoners MO plays as a scuzzy 70s version of the Shakespearean Hal/Falstaff dynamic that stop short of his political career but includes plenty of cheeky prescience towards the 45th former POTUS’ now famous traits.

We meet Trump (Sebastian Stan) as a debt collector for his disapproving Dad (Martin Donovan) and a wannabe real-estate player with dreams of building the best hotel in a Manhattan riddled with vice and poverty. A New Yorker who wants to see the city bounce back from 70s debt and lawlessness, make cash and get out from under Daddy’s shadow, Trump is a callow water-drinking youth ripe for shaping when he meets infamous lawyer, Roy Cohn (Jeremy Strong) in a private members club. A ruthless, influential and feared man who hangs out with crime kingpins and will do whatever it takes to win a case, Cohn sees potential in Trump – taking him under his wing to teach him three rules for being a ‘killer’ in life. It’s advice viewers will recognise; attack, attack, attack; the truth is fluid, never admit defeat.

As Cohn’s mentorship (in dressing, media manipulation, networking) takes hold Trump’s image begins to crystallise – the navy suits, the helmet hair, the hyperbole – and he sheds his past. His father is eclipsed, his troubled brother jettisoned, his wife Ivana (Maria Bakalova) betrayed… and Trump gets liposuction, his bald patch removed, his face looks more and more like, in Ivana’s words, ‘an orange’.

Though Stan portrays Trump with some signature moves (hand gestures, his stiff neck, the pouting) his performance is nuanced, getting to the heart of the stone-cold ambition and narcissism that took him from knocking on doors for rent money to the oval office. And he throws himself into the more cartoonish moments with relish as Trump meets Andy Warhol, gobbles speed, gets blow-jobs from casino girls and worries about his weight while refusing to exercise. 

But the more interesting aspect of the film is not necessarily the rise of an international figure, it’s the man who shaped him. Strong is repellent and reptilian as Cohn, an unblinking mercenary who oozes malevolence and misanthropy, and ultimately, one of the first people Trump stabs in the back. Though a controversial marital rape scene horrifies, drawing audible gasps from the Cannes audience, it’s Cohn’s treatment at the hands Trump that really strikes a nerve in a movie that dramatises known aspects of his rise to power.


Ali Abbasi’s The Apprentice starring Sebastian Stan, Jeremy Strong, Maria Bakalova and Martin Donovan is screening at the 77th Cannes Film Festival. Release date TBC

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