The Scandalous Trump Movie at Cannes Could Be an Oscar Contender (Really!)

Mongrel Media
Mongrel Media

One of the scariest moments in a film this year will invariably belong to Jeremy Strong.

Early into The Apprentice, the new film about Donald Trump’s rise that premiered Monday at the Cannes Film Festival, Strong, playing notorious lawyer Roy Cohn, takes Trump, played by Sebastian Stan, into the room where he secretly records phone calls. With darkness behind in his intense eyes, Strong, as Cohn, tells Trump about how he orchestrated the death penalty for Ethel Rosenberg, the convicted Soviet spy. He explains how while others argued that her life should be saved because she was a mother, he disagreed. “She betrayed our country and she has to die,” he says, with no remorse. It feels like evil incarnate leaping off the screen.

Strong’s work is another master class from the Succession star, currently on his way to a Tony for An Enemy of the People on Broadway. It feels like one of the first performances of this year’s Cannes that has true Oscar potential. That is, if the entire prospect of this movie doesn't scare people away.

For what it’s worth, The Apprentice isn’t all that shocking. Directed by Ali Abbasi and written by journalist Gabriel Sherman, it tells the story of Trump’s rise in 1970s and ’80s New York through the prism of his relationship with Cohn. Nothing in here is particularly revelatory, even with the upsetting sequence that features Trump raping his then wife (Maria Bakalova) at their home. (Ivana later said: “As a woman, I felt violated, as the love and tenderness, which he normally exhibited towards me, was absent. I referred to this as a ‘rape,’ but I do not want my words to be interpreted in a literal or criminal sense.”)

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The Apprentice is an attempt to dig into the psyche of the man who became president—and is now running again—during his formative years, and it’s in Strong and Stan’s portrayals that we begin to see something that hasn’t already been rehashed time and time again.

The film begins with something almost like a meet-cute between Trump and Cohn across the room at Le Club, the private venue that both of them used to frequent. With his sunken eyes, Strong’s Cohn seems to bore into Trump with his gaze. These early moments of their courtship is where the film is at its strongest. Stan, who is also great in the upcoming A Different Man, plays Trump as a nervous nobody being crushed under the weight of his father’s thumb. He’s a beleaguered dork who thinks he’s somebody. You can hear some of those all too familiar inflections in his voice, but the braggadocio is still mild, the strange turns of phrase infrequent.

Cohn inducts him into his world, taking on the housing discrimination case against Trump and his dad. Cohn teaches him his rules of life, which eventually became Trump’s own playbook: Attack, deny, and don’t admit defeat. Strong inhabits Cohn’s unapologetic bullishness and his many contradictions, including his sexuality, which he doesn’t hide from his confidants. And the young Trump doesn’t care that he witnesses Cohn having sex with a man, because Cohn gets him what he wants.

As the plot jumps ahead to the ’80s, we see their power dynamic shift. Stan slowly morphs into a more recognizable version of the man, his hair growing thinner, his belly increasing, and his ego growing out of control. Meanwhile, Cohn weakens, his body faltering under the AIDS diagnosis he tried to keep a secret and his power waning with a massive IRS suit.

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The movie falters whenever this relationship recedes into the rearview, and the script can be painfully obvious, especially in the second half. We don’t really need to be told about the way Trump’s marriage to Ivana fell apart, nor do we need to see how Roger Stone (Mark Rendall) told him about Ronald Reagan’s “Let’s Make America Great Again” campaign slogan. (That scene in particular is an eye roller.) But whenever Stan and Strong are on screen together, The Apprentice can be magnetic, two actors at the top of their game trying to locate the malevolent soul of these public figures.

Right now it’s unclear when exactly The Apprentice will be released. It currently does not have U.S. distribution, a notion that likely remains daunting given the subject matter. Regardless, it’s unlikely to be much of an election game changer should it come before November, given that the material is so well trodden. Yet if it enters the Oscar race, Strong and Stan could very well make a showing.

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