‘The Apprentice’ Review: Sebastian Stan And Jeremy Strong Soar As Young Donald Trump And His Ruthless Mentor Roy Cohn In Devilish Origin Story – Cannes Film Festival

Don’t be confused about the title The Apprentice. This is not a movie version of the NBC reality TV series in any way, but instead a smart, sharp and surprising origin story of the man who hosted it. In this case the actual “apprentice” is Donald Trump, infamous real estate developer, former President of the United States and current presumed GOP nominee for 2024.

But the political Trump is not in Iranian-Danish director Ali Abbasi’s compelling film, which instead zeroes in on a specific period of Trump’s life in the early ’70s when he was in his 20s and struggling to make a name for himself in the world of real estate in New York City. But it isn’t just about him — it is equally focused on his unique relationship with his lawyer, the notorious Roy Cohn, often referred to as vicious, cruel, ruthless and sadistic, a take-no-prisoners cutthroat attorney who would win at any cost. The filmmakers have cited movies like Midnight Cowboy, Frankenstein and Barry Lyndon as partial inspirations for their approach, the latter about an 18th century social climber who stands for nothing himself.

More from Deadline

Trump and Cohn would become an odd couple, helping each other achieve their end goals at the time. That is the story of The Apprentice, which had its world premiere in competition at the Cannes Film Festival on Monday and still has its U.S. distribution rights for sale.

Will it sell, and will it be released before November’s election? We shall see, but this is not a hit job on Trump, and actually considering the 77-year-old we see today at MAGA rallies and dozing off in courtrooms defending his indictments on various charges including starting an insurrection to overturn the 2020 election. Instead, it presents a person somewhat driven but awkward, a man striving for the approval of a tough-love father, unsure but determined to succeed and even oddly charming at times. Yes, I said that. Cohn, responsible for helping Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s reprehensible anti-communist crusade in the ’50s as well as putting away convicted spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, was the man pulling the strings — until he wasn’t. Think of it as a twisted Pygmalion with Cohn tutoring and training Trump the way Henry Higgins did with Eliza Dolittle.

“Where’s my Roy Cohn?” Trump once uttered after a tirade about a current lawyer he was unhappy with. Cohn (Jeremy Strong) was his first fixer, and basically adopted the uneasy Trump (Sebastian Stan) upon spotting him looking nervous and alone in the exclusive NYC club Trump weaseled himself into. He took him under his wing and drilled into him the three golden rules he lived by, which considering the Trump of today are prophetic to say the least. Rule 1: Attack. Attack. Attack. Rule 2: Admit nothing. Deny everything. Rule 3: Always claim victory and never admit defeat.

The latter was the one Cohn emphasized above all as the most important thing to remember. He also told Trump no one likes a loser. “Everyone wants to suck a winner’s cock,” he tells Trump, who convinced his cold-hearted father Fred Trump (Martin Donovan) that they needed a lawyer like Cohn to take on a case the DOJ had launched over their housing developments (after being indicted for discriminating against Black tenants). In his own inimitable way he got the government to settle with no fines, thus endearing him to Donald. “You have to be willing to do anything to anyone in order to win,” Cohn says.

RELATED: Cannes Film Festival Photos Day 7: Demi Moore, Oliver Stone, Studio Ghibli Honor & More

The lawyer even dresses his mentee, who was born in Queens; not exactly the right breeding ground. “Is this gonna be a guy from Flushing or 5th Avenue?” he asks, getting an affirmative on the latter. He then puts him on the phone with a New York Times society columnist, and the result is a puff piece comparing his looks to Robert Redford and marking him as an up-and-comer. One of the key Cohn lessons is always chase the press, be in the newspapers every day.

Trump started moving up the ladder, with Cohn bringing him to a party with Rupert Murdoch, George Steinbrenner and others, cheekily (and now ironically in hindsight) telling him, “If you’re indicted, you’re invited.” Cohn himself had been in major legal hot water for tax evasion and also handled shady underworld characters, but he knew how to help Trump’s dreams of finishing Trump Tower come to fruition, essentially rigging a planning commission meeting to get $160 million tax abatement for which Trump was begging.

RELATED: Deadline Studio at Cannes Film Festival 2024 – Cate Blanchett, Jena Malone, Kevin Costner, Sienna Miller & More

Separately, he introduced him to a friend, Roger Stone (Mark Rendall), whose “specialty” is dirty tricks and who touts candidate Ronald Reagan’s campaign slogan “let’s make America great again” (a slogan Trump would later steal as his own when he ran for president). And when the top of the still unfinished first-ever all-concrete hotel in NYC is set on fire, Cohn brings Trump to a meeting with some of his mob clients who deliver Trump a come-to-Jesus moment demanding the “f*cking concrete guy” gets paid. Trump is shown already as being notorious for not paying his construction workers.

The personal side of Trump is also on display here as he endlessly pursues Ivana (Maria Bakalova) for a date and after several turndowns finally wears her out. They marry, after she at first refuses to sign the absurd pre-nup Cohn had drawn up (she later does), and it is quite the social occasion. She becomes his partner in the garish design of Trump Tower. They have kids, but even before Trump Tower is completed he has set his eye on the casinos in Atlantic City, convincing Cohn he knows what he is doing (they all later went bankrupt). The marriage also went downhill, with the unfaithful Trump admitting to Ivana he was no longer attracted to her after she initially seemed to be in the mood for some lovemaking. She lashes out, calling him fat, ugly, bald, and orange-faced. A physical encounter ensues in which they have intense sex on the floor. Whether or not it was consensual is questionable at best and likely to be controversial, especially in light of sexual assault accusations and the E. Jean Carroll suit which he lost. Public knowledge of these lawsuits (not in the film) could paint the viewer’s opinion. It appears violent though.

The film shows his darker side, that scene included, as he is changing, becoming more ruthless himself — even to Cohn, by double crossing his lawyer whose partner has contracted AIDS and needed help in getting a room at the Hyatt; Trump reluctantly agreed but later sent him a bill. Soon Cohn himself contracts AIDS, but they make up when Trump comes to his birthday celebration with a gift of “diamond” cufflinks that say “Trump” on each one. Ivana later tells Roy they were fake.

This exceptionally well-researched first screenplay by Gabriel Sherman, who had profiled Trump for various publications and thought the Trump-Cohn story would make a good movie, has turned out a tale that is essentially a Faustian deal between the two. Although they have both been described as monsters in different circles, they are really given an empathetic treatment here, at least in part, and at least in an attempt to show us what led to historical change in America, and what may well continue in a story whose end has yet to be written.

Trump has never seemed so, well, human, as his own early years show a man trying desperately for his father’s approval while at the same time trying to come out from under his shadow. Progressively the two-hour film shows him doing just that, but also losing some of that humanity in the process. I wouldn’t describe the portrait as flattering, but it is not a hatchet job — perhaps part of the reason is a foreign director who didn’t even know Trump before he came down those stairs to announce his presidential bid in 2015. The goal is to show the makings of that man, not who he would later become – no matter what your opinion of that man is. I have a feeling his base of voters, the ones he dug up from under a rock, might look at these early years and give their approval, warts and all. Ironically though the first image in the film is that of Richard Nixon swearing “I am not a crook.” What the filmmakers’ intention with that choice is certainly intriguing.

Stan eases into the role, suggesting the young Trump without venturing into an SNL-like impersonation. He captures him precisely and believably throughout. Cohn has been portrayed in other projects like Al Pacino did in Angels In America, but Strong is ideal casting, going all in and delivering a three-dimensional portrait of this complicated man. Bakalova is excellent in her few scenes, as is Donovan as father Fred who early on tries to explain he is not racist. “How can I be racist when I have a Black chauffeur?” he asks at the dinner table while berating his sons. Charlie Carrick as Trump’s older brother Fred Jr. is also very fine, showing a man who just couldn’t live up to his father’s expectations. Scenes between the two siblings show Donald has at least some empathy.

Special notice to Sean Sansom’s seamless hair, makeup and prosthetics work here which never brings attention to itself.

Producers are Daniel Bekerman, Jacob Jarek, Ruth Treacy and Julianne Forde, Louis Tisne and Abbasi.

Title: The Apprentice
Festival: Cannes (Competition)
Director: Ali Abbasi
Screenwriter: Gabriel Sherman
Cast: Sebastian Stan, Jeremy Strong, Maria Bakalova, Martin Donovan, Charlie Carrick, Mark Rendall
Sales agent: Rocket Science
Running time: 2 hr

Best of Deadline

Sign up for Deadline's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.