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'The Apprentice' Review

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June 1, 2024
Hunter Friesen
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The Apprentice premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking US distribution.

Whether we like it or not, a Donald Trump biopic was always going to be one of the hottest projects to be eventually announced. The headlines practically write themselves, and the free publicity from all the controversy would be too much for any producer to resist. But what filmmaker would have the audacity and enough screws loose to saddle themselves with such a divisive project? The Vegas odds would have most likely leaned on Adam McKay mining the same territory that he did with Dick Cheney in Vice. Or maybe HBO would have tapped company man Jay Roach to make a prestige made-for-television movie to help maintain their brand. Oliver Stone recently said he had “one more” in him during an interview with IndieWire after the Cannes premiere of his new documentary Lula. Stone has always fashioned himself as a mainstream provocateur and has had a fascination with Republican presidents (Nixon, W.), so what better way to go out than with the most attention-grabbing Republican president in history?

Well, all the smart money bets would have been dead wrong, as Iranian-Danish filmmaker Ali Abbasi, helmer of the Swedish fairytale Border and the Iranian crime thriller Holy Spider, turned out to be the one given the keys to the kingdom. But as it turns out, the most unlikely candidate for the job actually pulls it off quite well, with Abbasi and writer Gabriel Sherman (working off his original screenplay) excellently threading that dangerous gap between airless history lesson and alluring endorsement.

An important disclaimer is the first to appear on the black screen: the people you will see on-screen are real; their stories might have been fictionalized. The text isn’t meant to be read in a winking fashion or seen as some sort of excuse by the filmmakers for missing a few details here and there. It’s more of a stage setter to understand the figure at the heart of this story, a man we have all come to know as a serial manipulator of his origin.

The story then takes off in New York circa the 1970s. The Trump family business is currently facing a Justice Department discrimination lawsuit for its dilapidated rental units and young Donald (Sebastian Stan) is desperately seeking a way into the upper echelons of New York royalty. A chance meeting at the swanky Le Club with Roy Cohn (Jeremy Strong) immediately becomes the answer to Donald’s troubles, as the infamous lawyer - who would be the main inspiration for Mr. Burns in The Simpsons - takes a shine to the lovable loser energy that Donald exudes.

Cohn gives three simple commandments for Donald to follow: (1) Always be on the attack, (2) Never settle and always be ready to counterattack, and (3) Never accept defeat and always claim victory. Do these tactics sound familiar to you? Armed with these principles and the tenacity to make them work at any cost, Cohn slowly morphs Trump from that sadsack kid with a dream into the person we know today. Hey, at least we have someone else to throw on the pile of blame now.

The legend of Roy Cohn in popular culture has been dominated by Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Angels in America, with the role most famously played by Nathan Lane in the 2018 Boadway revival and Al Pacino in the 2003 HBO miniseries. Their Cohn is brash and larger-than-life, spitting in the face of his terminal AIDS diagnosis. Sherman and Strong opt for something subtler, a quietly menacing presence that coldly seduces you. His head pops out like a turtle after every other fourth word and he may as well have been voiced by Ray Romano, but the power he wields at every moment cannot be denied. There’s a reason that Donald hung on to his every word and loved him like a father.

Stan also shifts away from the umpteen portrayals of Trump we’ve seen over the past decade. His performance is absent of all the exaggerated impressionistic ticks of Alec Baldwin on SNL, instead leaning on his inner battle between superiority and insecurity to drive the physical energy. The hair and prosthetics are never necessary to the performance, only there to seal the deal for any still images.

Abbasi does make prominent use of differing visuals within the film, opting for a grainer look during the 1970s that morphs into a retro VHS aesthetic in the ‘80s. Kasper Tuxen’s camera is perpetually in documentary (or mockumentary) mode, supplying much of the humor with some nicely timed zooms and visual gags. But then the high-drama string score will remind you of the implications of this buffoonery. Coupling those two technical aspects with the presence of Strong does make for some strong (no pun intended) comparisons to Succession, which definitely isn’t a bad thing in this case.

There is still some biopic-y writing (they literally stumble into saying "the art of the deal" at one point) and Maria Bakalova’s presence as Ivana Trump mostly gets sidelined to the archetype of “long-suffering wife.” But those faults could have been only the tip of the iceberg in the multitude of other versions of this project that were likely in the pipeline. I didn’t have it on my 2024 bingo card that the most accurate adjectives to describe a Donald Trump biopic would be “restrained” and “insightful.”

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