Tuesday, June 18, 2024

“THE APPRENTICE”

THE STORY – A dive into the underbelly of the American empire, the film charts a young Donald Trump’s ascent to power through a Faustian deal with the influential right-wing lawyer and political fixer Roy Cohn.

THE CAST – Sebastian Stan, Jeremy Strong, Maria Bakalova, Martin Donovan & Joe Pingue

THE TEAM – Ali Abbasi (Director), Jennifer Stahl & Gabriel Sherman (Writers)

THE RUNNING TIME – 120 Minutes


Making a film about former President of the United States, Donald Trump, was always going to be a hot-button topic amongst cinephiles. Such a controversial figure who is still, to this day, a very real presence in our lives and has no intentions of fading away, one would think any form of a biopic about him would want to wait a number of years, perhaps after his passing, to tell any story about him so not to garner intense reactions out of people. But perhaps that’s the goal all along. No matter what the response to filmmaker Ali Abbasi’s (“Holy Spider“) latest film is, it’s going at least get some sort of a reaction out of people. And in a way, such a reckless and blatant approach to making and releasing this film now, while both his supporters and haters are out in full force during an election year where he will be the Republican nominee once again (barring an indictment of any kind) feels right in line with the kind of person Donald Trump is and has always been, well at least after he met Roy Cohn, which is what Abbasi’s film depicts. It’s not concerned with his Presidential years in the Oval Office, but rather the early days in his real estate career, when barely anyone knew who he was and through a mentor/protege friendship, it gave birth to this Frankenstein’s monster who not only became rich and famous, but infamous.

Before he made his billions, Donald Trump (Sebastian Stan) was a young, upstart real estate mogul looking to secure a deal with the city of New York under his wealthy father, Fred Trump’s (Martin Donovan) nose, who owned The Trump Organization. After venturing into a bar one night visited by some of the most powerful, corrupt, and wealthiest individuals in the city, Trump meets hotshot American lawyer and prosecutor Roy Cohn (Jeremy Strong), a blowhard, vulgar, and offensive individual who doesn’t care about anything other than winning. Trump elicits Cohn’s help to get the feds to back off his family’s business so he can move forward with building a luxury hotel in the middle of Grand Central Station, and Cohn eventually agrees. He likes the kid and seizes the moment to take him under his wing and teach him his three key principles to winning: Rule 1: Attack. Attack. Attack. Rule 2: Admit nothing. Deny everything. And Rule 3: Claim victory and never admit defeat. This mental attitude would go on to become the blueprint for how Donald Trump would eventually grow his family’s real estate empire through the 1970s and 80s, leading to the unbreakable mindset that would one day lead him to the Presidency.

Naturally, there’s quite a bit of fear and hesitation about how Sebastian Stan would portray Trump in “The Apprentice” (the title of the film applying to Trump’s role under Cohn’s tutelage and a play off of his famous television show of the same name). Is this meant to be a comedy? A drama? Perhaps even a horror film? Abbasi’s film, surprisingly, plays everything mostly straight, giving the film “Succession” levels of Shakespearean drama (backed by some brass-heavy pieces of score which will also remind viewers of the hit HBO show) as the relationship between Trump and Cohn touches upon themes of friendship, loyalty, and betrayal. The two start off the film in totally different places, and, by the end, they swap as one eventually becomes humbled by life, and the other displays a total disregard for it and its rules based on the teachings he inherited from the other. By telling such a story, “The Apprentice” does not shy away from showing audiences what a driven but naive young Donald Trump once was but also the notorious scumbag he would grow to become.

The film mostly succeeds in this monstrous true story due to the transformative and utterly compelling performances of Sebastian Stan and Jeremy Strong. Stan’s gradual transformation is entirely believable, avoiding SNL-levels of parody through his eerily uncanny, surprisingly restrained, and frightening portrayal of a total and complete narcissist. He absolutely nails Trump’s body language, speech patterns, and facial expressions, and he does this more progressively throughout the film while never once overplaying it. By the time you reach the end of the film, his version of Trump is completely unrecognizable from the person we met at the beginning of the film, not just in mind and body (courtesy of some convincing makeup work), but also in spirit. The same goes for Strong as Cohn, who captures Cohn’s voice, slight head bob while speaking, and, more importantly, his viciousness, ruthlessness, and cruelty. The latter human qualities are particularly noteworthy for how Strong manages to pry even the slightest degree of pity for Cohn from the audience by the end after watching what a despicable human being he was earlier in his life is nothing short of fantastic acting from the Emmy Award-winning actor. Watching those almost inhuman powers transfer from one actor to the other seamlessly over the course of the two-hour runtime is the film’s best asset, as Abbasi never asks us to sympathize with Trump but instead seeks to give us a better understanding of how anyone could ever think and behave the way he does. By the time you’re done watching Abbasi’s cautionary character study, it starts to make a bit more sense.

Some will feel that none of this is new information and the film’s very act of existence is objectionable, given how much of a prevalent force Trump remains in our daily lives. While Stan and Strong’s exceptional work makes the film worth checking out, there are still numerous flaws to be found within its storytelling. The decision to shoot utilizing different video formats, such as celluloid filmstock and camcorder footage, provides a clear distinction between the time periods, accentuated by the film’s soundtrack comprising various hits from the time. Some of these needle drops feel appropriate, while one in particular during a physical assault by Trump on his former wife Ivana Trump (a sadly underused Maria Bakalova) feels completely out of place and cuts the horrifically violent act’s knees right from underneath it. Abbasi wisely avoids showcasing any and all contemporary scenes during Trump’s presidential run and eventual Presidency, but that doesn’t stop screenwriters Jennifer Stahl & Gabriel Sherman from constantly eluding to it in some heavy-handed ways. Whether it’s played for laughs or for a cheap wink at the camera to tell audiences unnecessary indicators such as, “See! That’s how he got his campaign slogan!” it never hits as hard as the drama conjured by Stan and Strong, nor the queasy feelings it produces in your stomach knowing what this power-hungry, nonsensical fraud of a businessman would later go on to do.

While Trump constantly fabricates the truth to create a scenario where he comes out ahead, Abbasi’s film is about getting as close to the truth as possible to paint a picture of a figure where he comes out not as low as possible but across as honestly as possible. That honesty is rotten to the core, and Stan’s immersive portrayal never breaks away from that truth. There is no breaking of the fourth wall to over-explain details to the audience, nor is there a sharp divide between the film’s drama and comedy, causing us to question whether we should take the film seriously or not. It’s as serious a film for our tumultuous times as any other. Although it might not be perfect, and some will rightfully question whether the timing of “The Apprentice” is justified, Stan and Strong provide awards-worthy work that will get people talking and hopefully convince them to see Trump for who he is and has always been.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Sebastian Stan and Jeremy Strong deliver awards-worthy performances as they dig deep into their characters and chart a course for them to intersect and reverse positions by the end. Avoids SNL-levels of parody. Ali Abbasi's decision to shoot the grounded character study in various formats is inspired and fitting.

THE BAD - The screenplay's more comedic moments don't land as well as its dramatic beats do. Maria Bakalova is underutilized. Some will still take issue with its potential surface-level character study and release during such a tumultuous time.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor & Best Original Screenplay

THE FINAL SCORE - 7/10

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Matt Neglia
Matt Negliahttps://nextbestpicture.com/
Obsessed about the Oscars, Criterion Collection and all things film 24/7. Critics Choice Member.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Sebastian Stan and Jeremy Strong deliver awards-worthy performances as they dig deep into their characters and chart a course for them to intersect and reverse positions by the end. Avoids SNL-levels of parody. Ali Abbasi's decision to shoot the grounded character study in various formats is inspired and fitting.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>The screenplay's more comedic moments don't land as well as its dramatic beats do. Maria Bakalova is underutilized. Some will still take issue with its potential surface-level character study and release during such a tumultuous time.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b><a href="/oscar-predictions-best-picture/">Best Picture</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-actor/">Best Actor</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-supporting-actor/">Best Supporting Actor</a> & <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-original-screenplay/">Best Original Screenplay</a><br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>7/10<br><br>"THE APPRENTICE"