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‘The Apprentice’ Is the Most Brutal Donald Trump Biopic Imaginable

It’s not like we didn’t know about the real-estate-mogul/reality-TV president’s horrible early years with Roy Cohn — but this Cannes Film Festival entry doesn’t pull punches

The Apprentice film

Metropolitan Filmexport

Every superhero gets an origin story. So, for that matter, do most supervillains. The Apprentice drops viewers into New York circa 1973, when a 34-year-old resident of Queens walked in to the upper-crust establishment on the Upper West Side known as Le Club. He went there in an attempt to impress a young woman. He’d leave having met a well-known lawyer and well-connected member of New York’s elite, who would end up changing his life. The legal eagle was the notorious Roy Cohn. The outer-borough wannabe was Donald Trump.

Director Ali Abbasi knows he’s dealing with playing with fire by attempting to chart the early years of the former POTUS and current trial defendant, with the focus being on how the brash young real-estate developer learned his Teflon techniques of deflection, trash-talking and tabloid ubiquity at the foot of a man who’d been mastering such things since the McCarthy era. And yet, if anything, the Iranian-Danish filmmaker doubles down on detailing just how well the student soaked up his teacher’s lessons. You can’t accuse the movie of pulling its punches. The Apprentice is a biopic, starting from the moment Trump and Cohn lock eyes across a crowded room — the beginning of most great love stories — and concluding with Cohn passing away in 1986 from AIDS-related complications. Mostly, however, it’s a remake of Frankenstein, in which a mad scientist plays Pygmalion and watches his creation turn into a monster.

At this point in his career, Trump — played with equal amount of oil, vinegar and venom by Sebastian Stan, in a performance that’s less an impersonation than an indictment by a thousand signature-characteristic cuts — is on the wrong side of a binary equation. People are either killers or losers, he’s told by his dad, Fred (Martin Donovan). Donald is a loser, forced to bang on doors and collect rent checks from father’s tenants. When he meets Cohn (Jeremy Strong), who’s holding court with an entourage of sycophants and gangsters at a central booth, the Trumps’ family business is being sued for housing discrimination. The man who still brags about sending Ethel Rosenberg to the electric chair takes a shine to the handsome blonde Don; he knows this great pretender is punching way above his weight class, but Cohn thinks he can mold him into a fellow power broker. He takes the case but doesn’t take Donald’s check. His friendship, the lawyer says, is the only payment. Besides, favors are poker chips. Like the private recordings he keeps on his other famous, scandalous clients during consultations, Cohn loves to have a little insurance on the side just in case.

The details behind Cohn’s mentorship are well-known at this point, notably how he taught Trump the three key components of what would become the Reality TV President’s standard operating procedures: attack, deny, and turn every defeat into a victory. To see them acted out in a story that takes its audience’s knowledge of the eventual endgame for granted, however, still leaves you feeling unsettled, enraged, and in desperate need of a steel-wool scrubdown. Abbasi isn’t a subtle filmmaker, and his need to provoke sometimes undermines his points; his previous movie, the serial-killer thriller Holy Spider (2022), was a commentary on social misogyny that inadvertently courted the very thing it was trying to criticize. Here, the blunt force works in his film’s favor. The sheer amount of broadly depicted bad behavior on display, especially as Trump overtakes his tutor as New York’s No. 1 immoral bigwig in the go-go 1980s, gives you a good idea of how the mogul’s worst qualities metastasized in the media’s spotlight. Cohn taught him well, and celebrity only further curdled him. You see Trump weasel, backpedal, backstab, double-talk, lie, cheat, steal. You also witness him rape his wife.

Yes, it goes there. The Apprentice has already sparked a lot of controversyCannes-troversy? — over a sequence in which the 45th President of the United States sexually assaults his then-spouse, Ivana Trump. Portrayed by Borat 2’s breakout star Maria Bakalova, Ivana is smitten by the can’t-stop-won’t-stop rich guy chasing after her, and smart enough to balk at a pre-nup that would require her to give back any “gifts” her partner gave her if they divorce. She also serves as a human counterpoint to Trump’s increasingly crude, vulgar and power-hungry attitude in terms of being a “killer,” and his isolation after the death of his troubled “loser” brother Freddy (Charlie Carrick).

After she suggests that they reignite the spark in their marriage via a book on the G-Spot, Donald tells her that he’s not attracted to her anymore. Then he rapes her on the floor. The incident was detailed in a deposition by Ivana, and reported in the 1993 biography Lost Tycoon by Henry Hill III. She later disavowed the claim, but the movie unequivocally presents the incident as nonconsensual, violent and a criminal act. The Trump campaign has vowed to sue to get the sequence removed. At a press conference for the film, Abbasi didn’t address the scene in question, though he did mention they’re hoping to get the uncut film in U.S. theaters this September before the election.

Even without that particular, sickening example of Trump’s I-can-do-anything-I-want attitude as he ascended the ladder of fame and fortune, The Apprentice would still feel like a damning portrait of someone who’s become one of the single most divisive figures in American history. It does no favors for Cohn, either — though Strong is doing some of the best work of his career here — although at least the lawyer never loses his sense of loyalty. That’s something that Trump jettisons the moment it’s no longer needed or suits him, and even though he hosts a birthday dinner for his dying friend, you see his staff fumigating the furniture the second Cohn is gone. It’s a movie that wants you to know how Trump became the man he is today, and how another infamous participant in our nation’s descents into moral free-fall activated something deep within this striver from Queens. Call it The Art of the Deal With the Devil — hopefully coming soon (or at least not before it’s too late) to a theater very near you.

From Rolling Stone US