Sebastian Stan and Jeremy Strong impress in Ali Abbasi’s otherwise lacklustre Donald Trump origin story

The Apprentice


‘The Apprentice’

Dir: Ali Abbasi. Canada/Denmark/Ireland. 2024. 120mins

What turned Donald Trump into such a polarising figure? The question drives The Apprentice, which charts the rise of the real estate mogul in the 1970s and ‘80s, searching for the seeds of his callousness and megalomania without much success. One cannot fault Sebastian Stan, who plays the insecure entrepreneur during a pivotal period, or Jeremy Strong as Trump’s ruthless lawyer and mentor Roy Cohn. But, despite its welcome restraint, director Ali Abbasi’s English-language debut never has a decisive take on the man whose greed and ambition eventually took him all the way to the White House. 

Presents us with The Donald, but fails to put its stamp on him

Abbasi’s fourth feature is his third in a row to screen in Cannes. (Border won the top prize in Un Certain Regard in 2018, while 2022’s Holy Spider earned Zar Amir Ebrahimi Best Actress.) Returning to Competition, Abbasi has delivered a suitably sour drama that is certainly timely — Trump will be mounting a campaign to regain the presidency this autumn — and the star power of Stan and Strong (supported by Oscar-nominee Maria Bakalova) will draw curiosity. But what is less clear is how much appetite there will be for a film devoted to a controversial man who will dominate headlines (especially in the US) over the next several months; the film has sold to several territories, with StudioCanal taking the UK/Ireland, but a US deal is yet to be done.

When we first meet Donald Trump (Stan) in the mid-1970s, he is an aspiring mover-and-shaker in New York’s real estate world and is introduced to feared, amoral attorney Roy Cohn (Strong). The blunt ballbreaker takes the admiring Trump under his wing, teaching him the secrets to being a winner. (In short: relentlessly attack your adversaries, always claim victory and never confess to anything.) With Cohn’s guidance, Trump quickly grows his business empire while claiming alluring socialite Ivana Zelnickova (Bakalova) as his bride. 

Written by journalist Gabriel Sherman, The Apprentice gets its title from the NBC reality series that restored Trump’s lustre in the 21st century although, in the case of this film, Trump is the one learning the ropes. Initially, Trump and Cohn’s rapport — that of eager disciple and malevolent teacher — sparks what is, in essence, Trump’s supervillain origin story. Cinematographer Kasper Tuxen films in faded, gritty tones, capturing a seedy New York during an era of economic downturn which eventually led to the ‘80s boom. 

Abbasi resists humanising his main character, although he and Stan avoid glib caricature. Stan does a remarkably subtle job of capturing Trump’s mannerism and facial tics — the pursed lips, the jerky hand gestures, the cocked head meant to convey toughness — while keeping the character appropriately life-sized. There are nods to how Trump’s unloving father Fred (played with muted chiliness by Martin Donovan) belittled him into becoming a lethal businessman, but The Apprentice argues that it was Cohn’s unapologetically unscrupulous behaviour that inspired Trump to lie, scam and bully his way to success. Not that the picture has any illusions that Trump was an innocent soul corrupted by external forces; he always had a killer instinct.

But despite the film’s appealing textures — production designer Aleksandra Marinkovich and costume designer Laura Montgomery do sharp period work — Abbasi struggles to find a compelling arc in Trump’s ascension. There is some grim fascination to watching an irredeemable egomaniac knock down every obstacle blocking his path. But Trump’s heedless quest never lends itself to deeper revelations about the mogul, nor does it suggest how he symbolises the dark side of so-called American exceptionalism. By striving for realism, The Apprentice ends up dramatically flat, the recitation of Trump’s most infamous incidents — including Ivana Trump’s charge her husband raped her (an accusation she later disavowed) — playing out perfunctorily.

As the ferocious Cohn, Strong is menacingly stripped-down, but once Cohn develops AIDS in the ‘80s he recedes from the narrative, robbing the film of one-half of its most dynamic power couple. (Sadly, Bakalova’s scrappy Ivana is quickly sidelined.) The Apprentice proposes that Cohn, who many considered equally as monstrous, eventually realised to his horror what he had wrought by unleashing his pupil on the world. But that tepid assertion is hard to buy — just a strained attempt at a dramatic crescendo in a film that presents us with The Donald, but fails to put its stamp on him.

Production companies: Scythia Films, Profile Pictures, Tailored Films

International sales: Rocket Science, 

Producers: Daniel Bekerman, Jacob Jarek, Ruth Treacy and Julianne Forde, Louis Tisne, Ali Abbasi 

Screenplay: Gabriel Sherman

Cinematography: Kasper Tuxen

Production design: Aleksandra Marinkovich

Editing: Olivia Neergaard-Holm & Olivier Bugge Coutte

Music: David Holmes & Brian Irvine, Martin Dirkov

Main cast: Sebastian Stan, Jeremy Strong, Martin Donovan, Maria Bakalova