‘The Apprentice’ Review: Donald Trump Movie Starring Sebastian Stan Plays Like a Tragic Frankenstein Tale

There’s not much in Ali Abbasi’s filmography to make you think that he’d want to make a movie about a young Donald Trump and his mentor Roy Cohn. But there’s a lot in the Iranian-born, Copenhagen-based filmmaker’s work to suggest that if he did make such a movie, it could be both fascinating and terrifying.

And in a way, “The Apprentice,” which premiered in the Main Competition at the Cannes Film Festival on Monday, is both of those things. It’s a true-life horror story in some ways, and Abbasi approaches it as a Frankenstein tale in which the mad doctor creates a monster and then loses control of it. But after years of Trump imitations (and the real thing), it also can’t help but feel a little cartoonish, and maybe not the best use of the director’s particular talents.

Abbasi’s feature debut was a 2016 horror film about surrogacy; his second was the 2018 Cannes sensation “Border,” which drew screams and squeals with its scene of troll sex; and his third was the visceral drama “Holy Spider,” about a real-life case in which an Iranian serial killer who preyed on sex workers and was applauded by many in the conservative society.

To put that skill set – an uncompromising, often dark vision, a taste for horror and an outsider’s perspective – in the service of a film about the young would-be mogul and the conniving lawyer who taught him how to win at all costs wasn’t a sure thing by any means, but it was awfully intriguing.

And to call that film “The Apprentice,” swiping that title from the TV show that helped give Trump the profile to run for president, suggested a sense of humor that might be necessary to survive this particular project.

There’s humor in the film, mostly in the knowing chuckles elicited when a key moment of the Trump bio clicks into place: Here’s where Roy Cohn (Jeremy Strong) introduces Trump (Sebastian Stan) to Rupert Murdoch and says “he could really help you” … here’s a young Roger Stone showing Trump a Ronald Reagan campaign button that says, “Let’s Make American Great Again” … Here’s Cohn taking Trump clothes shopping and advising him on the kind of suits that will help hide his “big ass.”

These are the building blocks of the Trump we think we know, with the movie’s opening title card saying that the film is “based on real events” but also includes fictionalized elements. And make no mistake, if Trump and his supporters get any idea of what’s in “The Apprentice,” the cries of “fake news!” will be resounding, because this semi-biopic begins with mockery and ends with dread.

At the start of the film, which adopts a 1970s style for its shots of the New York City of that era, Trump is a guy who trudges door to door in a rundown apartment building (“Trump Village”) built by his father, collecting rent checks from struggling tenants who clearly don’t like him.

In New York City, meanwhile, Trump has been admitted to an exclusive private club, where he regales a date with descriptions of the powerful men who surround them. “Why are you so obsessed with these people?” she asks, and he offers a weak “I’m not obsessed, I’m just curious” defense that isn’t enough to keep her from heading to the powder room and then out the door.

From the next room in the club, an imperious lawyer Roy Cohn invites the poor guy to come sit at the table Cohn is sharing with a couple of mobster clients and some other people he deems unworthy of introduction. Everybody at the table laughs at Trump, with his timid manner and his order of ice water — but if the young Donald is essentially presented as a socially awkward, vaguely pathetic wannabe unable to get out from under a domineering father, Cohn sees something he likes in the little bit of empty bravado Trump can summon up.

“I like the kid,” he says at one point. “I feel sorry for him.”

Or maybe he sees something he can mold in the clueless waif with family money. Cohn, who was instrumental in sending convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to the electric chair in the 1950s, spouts “America first” speeches that are echoed in Trump’s stump rhetoric to this day. And he offers his three rules for winning: “attack attack attack,” “admit nothing, deny everything” and “no matter what happens, claim victory and never admit defeat.”

Strong nails a certain blank, slack-jawed, morally vacant look that Cohn had, even if he’s hardly a dead ringer for the vicious fixer who dropped homophobic slurs and insisted until the end that he was dying of liver cancer rather than AIDS. Stan has a tougher job of it — because despite the makeup and hair, it’s impossible to compete with the real thing that has dominated media for the past decade.

The movie essentially shows Trump learning to lie, ineptly wooing his first wife, Ivana (Maria Bakalova), building the Commodore Hotel and Trump Tower, making an ill-advised foray into Atlantic City and gulping diet pills to keep himself going. It’s the construction of the Trump persona, with help from the slimy advisor who has the keys to “winning.”

And it’d play like a tragedy if we didn’t know what happened after the movie ends. The movie has the feel of a rise-and-fall saga, with Trump growing increasingly unhinged and out of control — and with Stan increasingly adopting the vocal and physical mannerisms we see on social media and the news today. It’s most horrifying — and most Abbasi-like — in an extended scene that cuts between a memorial service for Cohn and Trump on the operating table getting liposuction and a scalp reduction, all set to the strains of “My Country Tis of Thee.”

That sequence might be the one that makes the most of Abbasi’s uncompromising gifts, and suggests that the director’s heart might be in a truly wild movie not quite so tethered to biographical details. “The Apprentice” is amusing at times and disturbing at others, but it’s hard not to think that Ali Abbasi could have done something weirder, wilder and more satisfying if he’d found a way to bring in more magic and less MAGA.

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