Screening At Cannes: ‘The Apprentice’

“This is really not a movie about Donald Trump,” director Ali Abbasi said. “This is a movie about a system, and the way the power runs through the system."


In the same week that Donald Trump retweeted a post boasting how his potential re-election would usher in a “unified Reich,” and only a few days before MAGA minion Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted a baseless accusation that “the Biden DOJ and FBI were planning to assassinate” the 45th president, Cannes premiered Ali Abbasi’s juicy, jaundiced DJT origin story The Apprentice.

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This making-of-a-monster movie, conjuring ’70s/’80s New York City with a tactile joy, outlines how the hungry-but-clueless real estate scion (an admirably restrained Sebastian Stan) found a mentor in vampiric cutthroat uber-lawyer Roy Cohn (Jeremy Strong, deliciously dead-eyed). Lesson #1: Attack, attack, attack. Lesson #2: Admit nothing, deny everything. Lesson #3: Claim victory, never admit defeat. And with Cohn’s cardinal rules under his belt, Fred Trump’s son—through sheer force of will and a knack for steamrolling reality—becomes The Donald.

Trump’s browbeating father (Martin Donovan) belittles Little Donnie and thinks his plan to turn a decrepit midtown hotel into a luxury destination is a pipe dream. But Cohn makes Trump’s aspirations come true, using a little bit of blackmail and intimidation to win a $60 million tax abatement that transforms the shuttered Commodore into the Grand Hyatt.  “You create your own reality,” Cohn tells Trump as his real estate fortunes begin to rise. “Truth is malleable.” Strong’s calculating, closeted Cohn spews gay slurs, calls liberals “worse than Nazis” and reserves special contempt for any notions of justice. “Don’t tell me what the law is, tell me who the judge is,” he croaks.


But their power dynamic starts to switch when Trump meets model Ivana Zelníčková (Maria Bakalova) and wants to wed. “The matrimonial game is a zero-sum game,” Cohn warns. “Somebody’s got to protect you.” But Trump ignores him, the first of many times Cohn tries to steer him away from future disasters. “It’s cheap and grubby and it’s gonna be bad for your brand,” Cohn says when Trump shows him around his Atlantic City casino. Trump couldn’t care less. “What do you think of midget wrestling?” he asks Cohn.

Cohn helps Trump build Trump Tower, even as the amoral attorney watches his secret lover waste away from AIDS. Soon enough, he’s infected with the “gay cancer,” while Trump, now addicted to diet-pill amphetamines that he pops like candy, develops love handles and male-pattern baldness. He throws a 60th birthday party at Mar-a-Lago for the seriously ailing Cohn, giving him silver-and-diamond cufflinks that are actually pewter studded with cubic zirconia. And then, after the guests leave, he makes his staff disinfect the dining room. What does Trump get for himself? Liposuction and a scalp reduction.

Not surprisingly, within hours of The Apprentice’s Cannes premiere, Team Trump threatened litigation—bringing to mind one of the many pearls of wisdom Cohn delivers in the film: “Always file a lawsuit, always file a lawsuit.” Abbasi offered to screen the movie for Trump anytime, anyplace.

“I don’t think this is a movie that he would dislike,” the Iranian-Danish filmmaker told reporters during the film’s press conference. “I don’t necessarily think he would like it. I think he would be surprised.”

Martin Donovan, Maria Bakalova, director Ali Abbasi and Sebastian Stan at the 77th annual Cannes Film Festival at Palais des Festivals on May 21, 2024 in Cannes, France. Stephane Cardinale/Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

“If there’s an ideology for the movie, it’s a humanist ideology,” he continued. “It’s about taking these people who are icons, who are hated or loved, and sort of deconstructing that mythological image into earthly human beings. With that comes understanding, with that comes sympathy. That doesn’t necessary mean you forgive everything they did. If there’s a cathartic mission for the movie, that would be it.”

Will Americans get to see The Apprentice? At this point, no domestic distributors have opened their checkbooks. “We have a promotional event coming up, called the U.S. elections,” Abbasi joked. “It’s gonna help us with the movie.” He mentioned that the mid-September date for the second presidential debate would be the ideal time for a stateside release.

“This is really not a movie about Donald Trump,” Abbasi insisted. “This is a movie about a system. And the way the system works, the way the system is built, and the way the power runs through the system. Roy Cohn was an expert in using that system, and he taught Donald Trump.”

He pointed out that Roger Ailes helped to create MSNBC in 1993 before Murdoch tapped him to start Fox News in 1996. “A lot of these people, they go to the same charity events, they go to the same galas, they went to the same schools,” said Abbasi. “That’s the structure you’re dealing with. The idea that there’s a very sharp divide in the United States between conservatives and liberals, I think, is a fantasy.”

Screening At Cannes: ‘The Apprentice’