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The Apprentice

  • Film
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
‘The Apprentice’

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Ali Abbasi makes cinema great again with this funny but troubling portrait of Donald Trump

If there’s one thing this entertainingly salacious tragicomedy about the rise of Donald Trump (Sebastian Stan) teaches us, it’s that Trump was going to find a way to sue it. And so it’s proved, with the ex-President’s campaign team taking exception to a scene that depicts him raping his then-wife Ivana (a long-rumoured but unproven incident). 

Filmmaker Ali Abbasi, of course, will have seen this coming. After all, ‘always file a lawsuit’ is the key lesson Trump learnt from his attack dog of a mentor, Roy Cohn (Jeremy Strong), and The Apprentice charts that master-pupil dynamic in forensic detail – complete with bribery, blackmail and mobster connections. 

The result is either an inspiring Secret of My Success tale of bromance, entrepreneurship and reinvention or a gruesome origin story for a capitalist goblin who sheds his few human qualities in pursuit of the mighty dollar, depending on who’s watching. A cinematic Rorschach test, it’s more likely to reaffirm your views on the man than challenge them.

And that’s not necessarily a flaw. Written by Gabriel Sherman, biographer of disgraced Fox News CEO and Trump facilitator Roger Ailes, it charts the future President's beginnings as the put-upon son of bullying real-estate tycoon Fred Trump (Martin Donovan), who encounters Cohn presiding over a Manhattan members club like a pitbull in a schoolyard, and ends with him as a highly-leveraged ’80s power player. 

The gifted, shapeshifting Abbasi (check out his modern Swedish folk tale Border or Iranian serial killer drama Holy Spider) employs a fittingly cheesy ’70s TV aesthetic. Like Scarface with cheeseburgers, he charts Trump’s path to the top paved with junk food, speed pills and deals, shady and otherwise, navigated with the ultra-aggressive, unrepentant mentality instilled in him by Cohn. One gruesome scene of liposuction and scalp surgery adds a note of body horror to the biography. In another, an oblivious Trump meets Andy Warhol and finds unexpected common ground in their shared quest for cash.

It’s Scarface, with cheeseburgers instead of cocaine

The Apprentice is extremely funny in those moments, finding easy laughs in Trump’s familiar mannerisms and worldview, and deeply unsettling in others, especially in his sociopathic treatment of Ivana (Borat 2's Maria Bakalova) and the ailing Cohn. 

The two leads sell the odd-couple bromance. Strong has arguably the slightly easier task as the less familiar face, but he’s fantastic with it, bringing just enough sensitivity to Cohn’s rabid excesses, especially around his painfully closeted sexuality, to stop him becoming a cartoon villain.

And Stan grows increasingly commanding as the film goes on. The younger, more uncertain Trump presents a puzzle the 41-year-old Captain America actor never quite solves, but as soon as the script delivers its first ‘tremendous’ and one of those trademark hand waves, he’s off and running. The mannerisms are familiar, but its interpretation rather impersonation.

And what of that potential lawsuit? Surely, if The Apprentice has taken a few liberties with the truth – an old Cohn tactic – Trump will see the funny side. Or perhaps not. 

The Apprentice premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen

Cast and crew

  • Director:Ali Abbasi
  • Screenwriter:Gabriel Sherman
  • Cast:
    • Jeremy Strong
    • Sebastian Stan
    • Maria Bakalova
    • Martin Donovan
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