The Apprentice review: "Succession’s Jeremy Strong steals this solid Trump biopic"

The Apprentice

GamesRadar+ Verdict

Solid rather than spectacular, this Trump doesn’t tower, but it’s still a convincing portrait of avarice and venality.

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"Donald has no shame..." So says his spouse Ivana Trump in The Apprentice, a lively-if-limited study of ex-President Trump’s real-estate years directed by Ali Abbasi (Holy Spider, Border) and scripted by Gabriel Sherman (Alaska Daily). 

It’s a cutting statement that comes near the end of the film, as an increasingly ruthless Trump (Sebastian Stan) pays an insulting tribute to his long-time lawyer Roy Cohn (Jeremy Strong), offering him a gift of cufflinks. Made from cheap pewter and carrying zirconium instead of diamonds, they’re engraved with ‘Trump’, the name and brand that by now adorns his multiple hotels and other investments.

Spanning the '70s and '80s, The Apprentice takes off like a rocket, with the ambitious Trump befriended by Cohn, an attorney who’s been indicted three times and never convicted. The young Trump becomes his mentee, learning the rules of business (including "never admit defeat") which will stand him in good stead long before he gets to the White House. Cohn soon helps Trump outmaneuver the NAACP, who are trying to sue over his company refusing to rent property to Black citizens.

As the Trump empire grows – New York’s The Grand Hyatt and Trump Tower are just the start of his portfolio – we get a glimpse at the man himself. "Are you a killer?" asks Ivana (Maria Bakalova), a pertinent question given his increasing love of deal-and-money-making ("Everything I do is turning to gold") at the expense of all personal relationships. Heartless to his older brother Freddy (Charlie Carrick), especially when he starts unraveling, Trump is also shown to be violent towards Ivana, in one highly disturbing rape scene.

Above all, it’s a film about Trump’s undulating relationship with Cohn, a gay man caught up in the midst of the AIDS crisis who goes from cocksure player to Trump lackey. Performance-wise, Stan is decent if muted as Trump, straining to avoid caricature, but it’s Succession’s Strong who steals it with a multifaceted portrayal of a man scorned. 

With a Boogie Nights-esque feel (pop songs, gritty milieu), it’s entertaining to a point. Abbasi and Sherman play intriguingly with Trump’s idea that "truth is a malleable thing", something that’ll come to define his years in government. But whether the filmmakers truly get under Trump’s skin is debatable. Do we learn much new about him? Perhaps not, but it’s an absorbing journey all the same. 

The Apprentice's release date is currently TBC. For more from Cannes, here's our Megalopolis review and our Furiosa review.

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Freelance writer

James Mottram is a freelance film journalist, author of books that dive deep into films like Die Hard and Tenet, and a regular guest on the Total Film podcast. You'll find his writings on GamesRadar+ and Total Film, and in newspapers and magazines from across the world like The Times, The Independent, The i, Metro, The National, Marie Claire, and MindFood.