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Ali Abbasi The Apprentice Movie Review

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The Apprentice | 2024 Cannes Film Festival Review

The Apprentice | 2024 Cannes Film Festival Review

The Devil and Donald Trump: Abbasi Reconstructs the Rise of a Crony Capitalist

Among the many wise observations written by nineteenth century Englishman Lord Acton, he noted “Great men are almost always bad men…” But what if they were just plain bad to begin with? And what exactly constitutes greatness? With his fourth film, The Apprentice, filmmaker Ali Abbasi reconstructs the economic rise of Donald Trump through the 1970s and 1980s thanks to his relationship with infamous lawyer Roy Cohn, two men who fall considerably short of anything resembling greatness (at least, if humanity, integrity, and honesty are factors used to determine such a distinction), putting a surprisingly thoughtful spin on both men as logical products of environments and systems which fostered ruthlessness and abject greed. Sebastian Stan and Jeremy Strong are enjoyably compelling as a match made in capitalist hell, and while Gabriel Sherman’s script doesn’t exactly aim to redeem or empathize with either of them, it’s a blunt portrait of how their actions and behaviors were condoned and rewarded.

We meet a thirtysomething Donald Trump (Stan) on the outskirts of the economic enclave he desires to infiltrate in 1970s New York. His father Fred (Martin Donovan) has been accused of violating the Fair Housing Act and is being sued by the NAACP for discriminating against Black renters by charging them more than their white counterparts. It’s the first major hurdle obstructing Donald’s dream of purchasing a defunct hotel, The Commodore, and turning it into a luxury hotel which will revitalize Midtown Manhattan and jumpstart tourism in a city which is experiencing a major crime wave. A chance meeting at a private club (of which Mr. Trump gloats about being the youngest member), he meets Roy Cohn (Strong), an infamous lawyer who’s survived three indictments, is a friend of Nixon, put the Rosenbergs in the electric chair, and was a key player in McCarthy’s reign of terror. Cohn takes a liking to Trump, a young-ish man on the verge of going to seed, many of whom liken to Robert Redford. But what he really sees is potential, and he squashes the lawsuit against the Trump clan through blackmailing a key member of the DOJ who is a closeted homosexual (since, as we should all remember, known homosexuals weren’t allowed to be federal employees until 1975).

Doors suddenly seem to open for Trump, who is allowed a tax abatement with the help of Mayor Beame (who owes Cohn a favor) to construct the Grand Hyatt. Several years later, Mayor Ed Koch, however, doesn’t wish to extend the same grace for the Trump Tower. By this time, Trump has adopted the strategies of his mentor, who teaches him his three rules of success, the most important being never accepting defeat and never admitting the truth, which is akin to an episode of Seinfeld where George Costanza proclaims ‘it’s not a lie if you believe it.’ Sandwiched in this rise to prominence is Trump’s aggressive courtship and then dismissal of his first wife Ivana (Maria Bakalova) and the death of his older brother, Freddy (Charlie Carrick), an alcoholic who died at the age of forty-two from a heart attack (and who was also the black sheep of the family for pursuing a career as a pilot, seemingly too working class for his family’s elitist tastes). Eventually, as we all know, death comes calling for Cohn, the homophobic homosexual who would be abandoned by his minion and die of AIDS related complications in 1986.

What’s perhaps most interesting about The Apprentice, a nod to Trump’s hit reality television show which ran for fifteen seasons and which he served as host for all but one of them, is how Abbasi avoids presenting Trump as monstrous or villainous. Rather, he’s an ignorant, ambitious scion of privilege who is taught the ways of exploiting systems and resources for his own official gain. “Truth is malleable,” Cohn confirms. “Create your own reality.”

Stan migrates from playing Trump as an obsequious ingenue who transitions by leaning into speech patterns and mannerisms of the obnoxiously out-of-touch persona we’ve all become accustomed to, corrupted by power and eventually phasing out any who are no longer of use to him. As Cohn, Strong is quite captivating as the self-loathing, ruthless closet case whose truths weren’t quite as obscured as he would have liked at the time of his death. It’s odd watching a depiction of the AIDS crisis wherein Cohn and the white gay men who benefitted from his affections are relayed with a bluntness void of catharsis.

Considering Abbasi’s past work, an Iranian born director who resides in Copenhagen and has heretofore worked in genre with his past three features (most notable being 2018’s Border), this is a surprisingly sobering portrait on the making of a man who believes he is omnipotent. Choice soundtrack selections abound, including Spanish disco duo Bacarra and New Order, while DP Kasper Tuxen (The Word Person in the World, 2021) makes the film look as if we pulled out a VHS from the dustbin. Trump, it seems, believes a requisite skill is required to be a billionaire, something inherent in one’s genetics. The Apprentice clearly is not making a case for this, and his obliviousness to his surroundings suggests there’s not much different about him than any others similarly warped and corrupted by power. Maybe he’s born with it. Maybe it’s make-believe.

Reviewed on May 20th at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival – Competition. 120 Mins.

★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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