The Apprentice review: Sebastian Stan shines in drama about how Donald Trump went from wannabe to mogul

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One of the hottest tickets in Cannes this year is Iranian director Ali Abbasi’s The Apprentice, his tale of the rise and rise of Donald Trump.

The apprentice in question is Trump himself (Sebastian Stan), while the master he serves and later usurps is Roy Cohn (Jeremy Strong), a lawyer who hobnobs with leaders and has the ear of the president.

Cohn is ruthless and will stop at nothing to attain what he wants, often in the name of a patriotism which equals hard-right conservatism.

The film opens in 1970s New York. Donald is a baby-faced teetotal rent collector for his dad, but he yearns to break free of his father’s grip and strive for greater things, obsessing over the tycoons and millionaires that frequent Le Club.

This is where he meets Cohn who takes Trump under his wing and instructs him to follow his three essential tenets, which are all about achieving, denial and how even a defeat can be turned into a win.

Abbasi deftly recreates the feel of the city and the darkness of those years. And what starts gritty becomes colourful once Ivana (Maria Bakalova) appears her platinum blonde hair, scarlet dress and matching glossy lips.

The other important people are his family members. Martin Donovan plays Fred, the abusive and monstrous family patriarch. Donald’s mother Mary (Iona Rose MacKay) is a less forceful presence, while Trump’s brother Freddy (Charlie Carrick) is sympathetically depicted as a man slowly but irrevocably broken by his father’s contempt.

As the film moves into the 1980s, the look changes completely as the Eighties vibe comes clearly into focus, like walking into the neon-lit bathroom of a dingy club.

There is nothing but tackiness here, that harsh lighting revealing the deals in Atlantic City, the over-the-top décor of the Trump home and the gaudiness of the couple’s life together, even as their relationship falls apart.

The harshness also highlights Trump’s ascension as Cohn begins to falter and the apprentice becomes the master.

The film ends with Trump drafting his book The Art of the Deal, in which he dictates those three tenets drummed into him by Cohn. Nothing about Trump is original. Nothing has been gained by him alone. And there is nothing he won’t do to get what he wants.

The two leads are fantastic: Stan navigates from naïve wannabe to glowering mogul and never loses his way or slips into parody. His vanity about his hair and his looks is on display from the beginning, but in the early years he is unsure of himself and there is a vulnerability about him. Strong is also utterly believable as Cohn, a man as vain as his disciple and certainly as dangerous.

It’s hard not to bring up comparisons with Succession here: a New York dynasty, a tyrannical father, the wealthy elite, the presence of Jeremy Strong who played Kendall Roy… there’s even a fleeting glimpse and mention of Rupert Murdoch, whom Cohn says Trump should cosy up to. And then there’s the excellent music by Martin Dirkov, which has echoes of the Succession theme.

There are some problems, the story is too linear and the screenplay, by Gabriel Sherman, full of scenes seen many times before, such as Cohn chasing after Trump in the street begging for an audience or Donald refusing his calls, and the director could have been more inventive in the fil. However, there is a lot of humour here, particularly thanks to the character of Cohn, and almost always at Trump’s expense.

The Apprentice is not going to change anyone’s mind about Trump, who is so vain that he will almost certainly love this film, despite the references to his plastic surgery and big butt.

But Abbasi does an excellent job of showing us how and why Trump became the Trump of today and how his path to presidency was paved.