‘The Apprentice’ Review: Sebastian Stan and Jeremy Strong Are Superb in Chilling Account of the Unholy Alliance That Birthed Donald Trump

To clear any confusion up front, The Apprentice has nothing to do with the NBC reality competition of that name, in which Donald Trump sifted through a field of aspiring businesspeople to identify the most promising of them, sending an eliminated contestant home each week with the brutal dismissal, “You’re fired!” On the other hand, you could say that Ali Abbasi’s biographical drama has everything to do with the television series.

It’s a reverse reflection of the mentorship process, in which the host becomes the hungry young upstart, laying the foundations for a business empire built in part out of smoke and mirrors, and operating under the guidance of a master manipulator.

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Written by political journalist and Roger Ailes biographer Gabriel Sherman, the movie is first and foremost the story of a Faustian pact, in which the eager apprentice is schooled to ditch conventional notions of morality, ethics and empathy, eventually surpassing his Mephistophelean teacher in cold emotional detachment.

While a disclaimer acknowledges that some elements have been slightly fictionalized, the vast majority of Sherman’s screenplay deals in known facts. That could be considered a limitation, since many will wonder what’s the point of a movie that tells us nothing new.

One thing that will be interesting about this first English-language feature from Iranian-Danish filmmaker Abbasi — who forged his reputation in Cannes with Border and Holy Spider and directed the terrific closing episodes of the first season of The Last of Us — is who will be its audience. Will either side want to see this? With no U.S. distribution deal in place as yet, that remains a mystery.

Liberals will see it as a stomach-churning making-of-a-monster account while the MAGA faithful might conceivably misconstrue it as an endorsement of their guy, who has made the killer instinct his brand. That’s not to say the movie’s political sympathies are unclear. But if the Trump years have taught us anything, it’s that truth is elastic and perception can be skewed to whatever angle is most expedient.

Beyond the specific portrait of the man identified by his vanity plates as DJT (Sebastian Stan) and the barracuda who took him under his wing, Roy Cohn (Jeremy Strong), the movie takes a broader view of the corruption of the American soul.

It stretches from the crooked end of the Nixon years, a boon for sourness and cynicism, through the Reagan presidency and the ascendancy of corporate greed. That time span consecrated the supremacy of the “winner” and the contemptuous mockery of the “loser,” one of the most obnoxious commonplace denigrations in American life. The chief tenet Trump learns from Cohn takes the distinction one step further, asserting that the world is divided into killers and losers.

Sherman’s script zooms in on Trump when he’s a lieutenant in the employ of his real estate baron father, Fred Trump (Martin Donovan, scary), collecting rent from tenants who obviously loathe the landlord and his policies. The family business is under attack in a civil rights suit alleging violations of the Fair Housing Act, stemming from Trump Sr.’s discriminatory policies against Black prospective tenants. “How can I be racist when I have a Black driver?” bellows Fred.

Donald is eager to get out from under the old man’s shadow. The opening sequence shows him striding through the heart of Manhattan, a less graceful version of Tony Manero in Saturday Night Fever, at a time of rising crime and fiscal disaster, when the town’s reputation had gone from “Fun City” to “Fear City.” His eyes are fixed on the crumbling Commodore Hotel by Grand Central Station, the site of his first luxury development.

Fred Trump is only marginally warmer to Donald than to his first-born son Freddy (Charlie Carrick). The latter’s airline pilot job is a source of shame to his father, who calls him “a flying bus driver.” Donald seizes an opportunity to win parental approval after a chance meeting with Cohn at members-only ‘70s nightspot Le Club. An amusing moment has him trying to impress his date by running down a list of the famous, important and wealthy who frequent the place. “Why are you so obsessed with these people?” she asks, before going off to powder her nose.

Cohn is indignant that anyone should try to tell Fred Trump to whom he can rent; he uses compromising information about a D.A. to get the case thrown out. That gets the Feds off Donald’s father’s back and clears the way for him to get investors on board for the Commodore project. A meeting engineered by Cohn yields a strategic partnership with Hyatt.

The lawyer who proudly sent the Rosenbergs to the electric chair and was a key force in the McCarthy witch hunts is a great role for Strong. He makes the character suitably icy, a fast talker with a withering stare and an almost inhuman intensity. The actor has fun with the hypocrisy of an unapologetic dirty trickster who claims unwavering fidelity to “truth, justice and the American way.” Sherman makes sure we see how the entire Trump playbook was forged out of their alliance.

It’s somewhat predictable that when Cohn early on explains his three cardinal rules, Trump will later claim credit for them as his own credo: 1. Attack. Attack. Attack. 2. Admit nothing. Deny everything. 3. Claim victory and never admit defeat.

While there are faint glimmers of a moral conscience in some of Stan’s early scenes, such concerns are quickly swept aside once Donald starts seeing the results Cohn gets with bullying chicanery. His gaze hardens, along with his lacquered hair, as he begins to construct a persona based on Cohn’s teachings.

There’s wry humor in the way Trump chooses to ignore the lawyer’s hedonistic excesses, along with the side-eye of Roy’s unofficial boyfriend Russell (Ben Sullivan). The ease with which Cohn tosses out anti-gay slurs while denying his own homosexuality is just one dish in a smorgasbord of double standards. The tenuousness of Trump’s loyalty becomes apparent later when AIDS hits first Russell, then Roy.

That’s seen as a factor in Trump’s gradual distancing of himself from Cohn — until he needs his counsel again — but mainly it’s because the student overtakes the teacher, often shrugging off his advice. It’s to Strong’s credit that, while playing an odious, utterly irredeemable human being, he finds notes of pathos in Cohn’s decline.

One matter in which Donald ignores Roy’s cautionary warnings is his determination to marry Ivana Zelnickova, despite the Czech model’s repeated attempts to brush him off. Trump’s first wife is played by Maria Bakalova with savvy self-possession and what seems like full awareness of her husband’s negative attributes, plus a convenient ability to overlook them. She also shows signs of sensitivity that make her mildly sympathetic.

But the marriage begins disintegrating once Donald tires of her. One primary reason is seemingly that she has a head for business and he finds that unattractive. His wandering eye and ample opportunities for philandering don’t help either. “Donald has no shame,” says Ivana at one point with matter-of-fact disdain, and she means it literally.

A lot can be observed about Trump’s attitude toward women from his devolving relationship with Ivana, and one shocking scene that will likely raise hackles with the former president’s supporters feeds into the multiple accusations of sexual abuse against him.

In addition to feeling he has outgrown Cohn as he becomes more at home with tax avoidance, unpaid contracts and various other questionable means of expanding his empire, Trump also flips the tables on his father, talking down to the man who once intimidated him. It’s implicit in his increasingly self-satisfied, blowhard demeanor that he doesn’t truly feel he owes anything to anyone.

Some will argue that Stan’s performance in the central role is a touch too likeable, but the actor does an excellent job, going beyond impersonation to capture the essence of the man. In a character study of a public figure both widely parodied and unwittingly self-parodying, Stan gives us a more nuanced take on what makes him tick.

The most revealing scenes are Donald’s seeming distance from a family tragedy that he might have helped prevent had he been more giving, and his private display of grief, refusing to show vulnerability even to those closest to him. It’s the steady hardening of his nature that defines the characterization — the stern glare, the mouth set in a sullen pout, the sheer amount of physical space his persona takes up. Stan makes it plain that this is just as much a part of Trump’s performance as his own.

Abbasi and cinematographer Kasper Tuxon (The Worst Person in the World) give the movie a grainy texture that evokes the ‘70s and ‘80s, while the neon yellow main title credits instantly suggest vintage television. Bringing the era to life with tacky authenticity, Aleks Marinkovich’s production design lavishes particular attention on the vulgar ostentatiousness of Trump’s domain once he cracks the big time and Laura Montgomery’s costumes walk the line separating expensive from stylish or classy.

It might be considered a cheap shot to show Trump undergoing liposuction and a hair transplant in queasy detail at a grave moment for someone close to him. But that kind of disconnect from anyone else’s suffering is a key part of the portrait. What Abassi’s film reveals most of all is the extent to which the toxicity that’s now an inescapable part of our contemporary reality was shaped by the unholy alliance between two men half a century ago.

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