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Cannes 2024: The Apprentice review – Long shadow of Succession hangs over controversial Donald Trump biopic

Ali Abbasi film starring Sebastian Stan and Jeremy Strong zones in on a twisted early Trump mentor

The Apprentice
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Director: Ali Abbasi
Cert: None
Genre: Drama
Starring: Starring Sebastian Stan, Jeremy Strong, Maria Bakalova, Martin Donovan, Joe Pingue
Running Time: 2 hrs mins

Roy Cohn, the closeted scourge of communists and homosexuals during Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunts, has previously been fictionalised and hung out to dry in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and National Lampoon’s comic strip, Roy Cohn in Hell.

The Apprentice, which lists Ireland’s Tailored Films among its producers and is showing in competition at the Cannes film festival, zooms in on Cohn’s twisted mentorship of a young Donald Trump. The shadow of Succession casts long over Ali Abbasi’s controversial biopic, not least in the casting of Jeremy Strong as the vulpine Cohn.

Sebastian Stan, who does fine work incorporating Trump’s mannerisms without slipping into parody, can only bumble in Cohn’s presence when they first meet at members’ club in New York. Trump, a rent collector for his father’s property portfolio in a dilapidated city, wants to build a luxury hotel near Grand Central Station. Cohn has the nefarious legal skills to help.

A ruthless mentor, he teaches Trump three essential rules: “Attack. Attack. Attack; Admit nothing. Deny everything; Always claim victory and never admit defeat.” In common with many comic books, the dark master, soon enough, is mastered. Trump grows brasher and stronger as Cohn, enfeebled by Aids and federal investigations, visibly weakens. The commanding Cohn’s decline dovetails with a dip in the film’s dramatic impact.


Watching how The Apprentice plays in America’s polarised political landscape will be intriguing. The younger Trump recalls nothing if not the ditsy heroines of YA franchises, a harmless haplessness that will not play well with the Blue States. The third-act inclusion of a marital rape scene inspired by Ivana Trump’s divorce deposition – a claim she later retracted – will likely outrage Republicans (and possibly lawyers).

Working in Academy ratio with archival inserts, cinematographer Kasper Tuxen and editor Olivier Bugge Coutté recreate the late 1970s and 1980s to a series of loudly banging tunes selected by David Holmes.

The economical script by Gabriel Sherman, an award-winning biographer and journalist, often strays into a revision of the established story: “You have a face like an orange”, yells Ivana (Maria Bakalova, with a fun performance that lacks the statuesque presence of the first Mrs Trump), during a bust-up.

Director Abbasi has a strong Cannes game. He won the Un Certain Regard award with the disturbing troll picture Border in 2018. Zar Amir Ebrahimi, the star of the Danish-Iranian filmmaker’s impactful serial killer drama Holy Spider, was named best actress on the Croisette in 2022. The Apprentice lacks the gravitas or impact of these earlier films, but it’s a pleasing enough doodle thanks to Stan, Strong, and a lot of period wigs.

The Apprentice is In Competition at Cannes

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic