The Apprentice Is a Subtle Act of Resistance

Jeremy Strong and Sebastian Stan in <i>The Apprentice</i> Credit - Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Documentaries aside, few American filmmakers will attempt making any sort of overt political statement these days. If your money is coming from a streamer or a larger studio, forget it. Gone, long gone, are the days a Francis Ford Coppola or an Alan Pakula might venture to make a picture like The Conversation or All the President’s Men. Even Jonathan Demme’s remake of John Frankenheimer’s great 1962 political chiller The Manchurian Candidate is now 20 years old, though both films have turned out to more prescient than anyone would have believed two decades ago, or six—you could consider them quasi-documentaries.

Ali Abbasi The Apprentice, which premiered here in Cannes on May 20, arrives at just the right time. And if it isn’t a great movie, it’s at least a fascinating and thoughtful one, an even-handed film that doesn’t need to resort to extremes to paint an accurate picture of what America and the world are up against right now, in terms of one particular past and possibly future president. Sebastian Stan plays 1970s-and-'80s-era Donald Trump, at the time a socially clumsy, insecure underling in his bullying father’s real estate business. Jeremy Strong plays Roy Cohn, the cutthroat lawyer who’d served as Senator Joe McCarthy’s chief counsel during the Army-McCarthy hearings, and who’d earlier used questionable means to get Julius and Ethel Rosenberg convicted as Soviet spies, resulting in their 1953 execution. By the 1970s, he was gathering steam as a fixer extraordinaire, and this is where Abbasi’s movie begins. In 1973 the government accused Trump of violating the Fair Housing Act by barring African Americans from his rental properties; he secured Cohn’s services to file an audacious countersuit for $100 million in damages. Though the countersuit was dismissed by a federal judge, Trump later settled the case out of court, an encouraging first step for an aspiring megalomaniac.

Read More: The 100 Best Movies of the Past 10 Decades

In telling this story, which begins in a suitably gritty mid-1970s New York, Abbasi’s movie does a lot of things right. In the early scenes, Stan plays Trump as an awkward climber, driven by an inferiority complex that compels him to hang around with what he sees as the right people. This is why he approaches Strong’s Cohn in a restaurant one evening, as the lawyer sits at a table surrounded by numerous powerful and/or crooked cronies, among them mobster racketeer “Fat Tony” Salerno (John Pingue), who will later play a not-so-straight-arrow role in the construction of Trump Tower. But at this point, young Trump is in trouble with the feds; he thinks Cohn can help. Cohn tries to brush him off at first, but he can’t resist a challenge—he also sort of likes the kid. He takes Trump’s case and turns his new young friend into a protégé, instilling in him three rules for success: Attack, attack, attack; admit nothing, deny everything; and always claim victory—never acknowledge defeat.

Abbasi presents this student-teacher union with an almost dispassionate detachment. We already know how well one particular individual has already been served by these rules; no need for Abbasi to spell them out in bold type, and so he doesn't. His restraint is admirable, even if it makes his movie feels a little inert, at least through the first two-thirds or so. Still, his actors carry the film: Stan maps a believable transition from the striver Trump of the 1970s to the arrogant Trump of the 1980s, a guy who’s reached what he views as the top and who thinks nothing of betraying those who helped get him there, including his first wife, Ivana (played, with wit and vigor, by Maria Bakalova). In the movie’s most unsettling scene, Ivana suggests that maybe the couple needs to reinvigorate their sex life. Trump responds by informing her angrily that he’s no longer attracted to her and hates the way her fake breasts feel—never mind that he’s the one who talked her into getting them enlarged in the first place. As his anger mounts, he shoves her to the floor, forcing himself on her. You can read this episode as “consensual” if you’re looking to split hairs, but in Abbasi’s framing, it sure looks like rape. It’s a horrifying scene, though hardly a surprising one.

It's also most likely the chief reason a billionaire investor in the film, Dan Snyder, who is a friend and financial supporter of Trump’s, is said to have been “furious” over the cut of The Apprentice he saw in February, according to reports from Variety. Trump himself has called the movie “pure fiction,” vowing legal action. But in the grand scheme, Abbasi—who is Danish-Iranian—doesn’t seem to have embroidered much, if he’s done so at all, to make Trump look like a reprehensible human being. His portrayal—as drawn from Gabriel Sherman’s script—has a calmly chilling verisimilitude, meshing with all the behavior we’ve already seen. It tells us nothing new, but it does give us a sense of how we reached the point we’re at today, facing the possible re-election of a man who has no scruples, and no feeling at all for his constituents or his country. He’s driven only by what he stands to gain personally, in terms of money and power—not a public servant, just a servant to the self.

Which leads us to the most chilling effect of The Apprentice: the way it makes even a duplicitous manipulator and big-time hypocrite like Roy Cohn seem, at least in the end, believably sympathetic. Strong is terrific at capturing Cohn’s deadpan sharpness. At one point, as he’s getting the young Trump fitted for his first good suit, he observes drily, “You’ve got kind of a big ass, you gotta work on that.” But later, as Cohn is dying of AIDS—he never acknowledged his homosexuality, and never admitted to having the disease—we see how in the end, frail and capable of hurt feelings, he wasn’t even king of his own world. Plus, no matter what you think of Cohn—and there’s every reason to despise him—he claimed to the end that everything he did was for the love of his country. He may not be your kind of patriot, or mine, but he was motivated by a belief system that had meaning for him.

You can’t say the same for the young wanna-be who eagerly took to his tutelage. As of this writing, The Apprentice hasn’t yet secured U.S. distribution, which tells us how nervous American distributors are about the political climate in the United States leading up to the election. That’s ironic, because the movie, while highly principled, isn’t bold enough to change any minds, though it’s specific and potent enough to make some people very angry. In that sense, it’s a quiet act of resistance, and still, even in its restraint, it's viewed as dangerous. That's where we're at today, a place where subtleties aren't easily grasped. But everyone knows the meaning of attack, attack, attack.

Correction, May 23

The original version of this story misspelled the surname of the director of The Apprentice and misstated his nationality. It's Abbasi, not Abassi, and he is Danish-Iranian, not American.

Contact us at