For a biopic about Donald Trump, The Apprentice is surprisingly concerned with other things. The film has exactly what you might expect and somehow a curiosity around every corner, a familiar historical intrigue firmly planted in a tonal shock. The shock comes from its subtlety and perspective, the latter of which has a unique bent for a film about an ex-President debuting in an election year that spotlights his third campaign.

As you can imagine, there’s no shortage of American directors looking to cinematically take down Trump. But, for now, none of them get to. At least not as blatantly as Ali Abbasi, the international director who won the job to tell the story of the debased mogul from the early ’70s to the mid-80s. 

The Apprentice––aptly named after both the reality TV show Trump (Sebastian Stan) created and young Trump’s relationship with Roy Cohn (Jeremy Strong, scene-stealing at every turn)––marks the first American-focused and -made feature from the Iranian-Danish filmmaker. His last feature, Holy Spider, told the true story of an Iranian religious extremist who murdered innocent sex workers to cleanse his country and was supported by his far-right community when finally put on trial. One could make the case that it’s the Iranian equivalent of depicting Trumpian America.

It also marks the first feature Abbasi’s directed and hasn’t written, the script penned by Gabriel Sherman, an author best-known for The Loudest Voice in the Room, a 2019 New York Times-bestselling book on Roger Ailes, and a 2021 Vanity Fair feature that trudged, eyes open, through the horrors of Jeffrey Epstein. He’s a fine prospect for a Trump film: his subjects are consistent, and Trump could be king among the hideous set.

Much of what one might want to see depicted is depicted, in the sense that we get to be in the war room, near-Succession style, for his first major successes in the construction of the Grand Hyatt and Trump Tower in Manhattan, his Fair Housing Act lawsuit for discriminating against Black people, the deliciously childish and unconfident period that preceded that, and the painfully childish and confident period that followed and would eventually carry him into office. But Sherman’s choice of what to include in the story is also colored with immense restraint, a sea of intimate moments that either define or reflect where we’ve ended up on a smaller scale.

Examining American polarity is a bare-minimum expectation for an early-Trump biopic. But what makes Abbasi’s takedown so sweet, so refreshingly non-American, is that, as the director would say, “It’s not really a movie about Trump.” Leave it to an outsider to make a movie about Trump and use it to burn the entire country––as he should.

“The guy who created MSNBC in 1993 created Fox News in 1996,” Abbasi said plainly at the Cannes press conference the day after the premiere. “That’s the system we’re dealing with.”

Abbasi is interested in a much larger issue than one person, an issue many Americans tend not to recognize from the comfort of their home, the benefit of their bubble: the system that allows people like Trump and Cohn to flourish in the first place, much less be celebrated and empowered for their “achievements.” According to The Apprentice, Trump is a pawn in a terminally corrupt system that relies on people like him succeeding. And it’s the system that needs fixing if things are going to change. Abbasi’s Trump tale makes the fragile money monster out to be a piece of plastic. But keep in mind that the most expensive plastics don’t break, no matter what you hurl at them. They just keep looking shiny and synthetic, no nerves to damage, no image to ruin.

That it’s not ultimately about Trump is also wrapped up in the heavy focus on Cohn, a co-lead of the film and in real life largely responsible for the nepo-baby’s stunted rise to power. The cruel, infamous lawyer-rat nurtured Trump’s most capitalistically inhumane tendencies, if he didn’t fully impart them to him, teaching young, timid Donald what would eventually become his three rules of business: 1) attack, attack, attack 2) never admit; deny, deny, deny 3) always claim victory, never accept defeat. Sound familiar?

Abassi captures a sharp divide in the U.S., sure, but who doesn’t these days? It’s hard to get away from. That razor-sharp divide cuts down the middle of every highway, every school, every church, every home in America today. Hell, in the world. Who are we kidding? They hired a non-American for a reason. It’s much less interesting to imagine a “left” or “right” wing depiction than it is a well-considered one.

Abbasi takes formal cues from some of the best. Citing the influence of Paul Thomas Anderson and Stanley Kubrick in the press conference, he explained that they shot the first half of the movie on beautiful 16mm film with the intention to give audiences a sense of galvanization, glamor, good times. When it gets bad, they (very notably) shoot on a video camera, the rainbow-tinted ’80s camcorder static sensorially triggering the anxiety and depression of a bitter comedown, an unimpeachable loss.

Trump is depicted as a luxury diva in some ways, but more directly, and more honestly, he’s revealed as a blue-collar American. The funniest of these instances comes in the form of Trump getting excited about an open buffet at an Atlantic City casino that Roy Cohn makes distinctly clear is beneath him in sheer socioeconomic status if nothing else. Then again, Cohn runs in a group of kneejerk homophobes and he’s gay––what can we really trust?

There’s nothing artistically novel to write home about, nothing terribly notable in style or mood. But the story and characters get the most important thing we could ask for: thoughtful consideration. What starts off gentle and dare-I-say friendly (imagine a pitiful future President collecting rent checks door-to-door at failing properties in Manhattan, only to be greeted with vitriol by every tenant) becomes more piercing, more incisive, and ultimately so searing in its indictment of Trump that I can only expect him to fight the film with litigious fervor. The charges against him are lobbied on a cellular level, eventually turning The Apprentice into a deep-dive diss track on the souls of the ex-President and the country, its traditional values, and one man’s infatuation with them. 

The Apprentice premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival.

Grade: B

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