Controversial Donald Trump biopic The Apprentice shocks Cannes audience

Jeremy Strong and Sebastian Stan in The Apprentice. (Mongrel Media)
The Apprentice stars Jeremy Strong and Sebastian Stan. (Mongrel Media)

The Apprentice, Ali Abbasi's Donald Trump biopic, premiered at Cannes on Monday, 20 May to much controversy, both before and after its debut.

Centred on the 45th president of the United States before he became the public figure he is today, the film explores how Trump's (Sebastian Stan) mentorship under lawyer Roy Cohn (Jeremy Strong) led to his rise to power. It also examines his personal life like his relationship with first wife Ivana (Maria Bakalova) and his obsession with his looks, both of which drew audible gasps from the audience at Cannes.

Variety reports that while the film received an 8-minute standing ovation it also shocked viewers with scenes depicting Trump's alleged rape of Ivana, as did a scene in which Trump was shown receiving liposuction in grim detail. This is far from the only controversy that the film has been subjected to.

CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 20:  Gabriel Sherman, Maria Bakalova, Ali Abbasi, Sebastian Stan and Martin Donovan depart the
Gabriel Sherman, Maria Bakalova, Ali Abbasi, Sebastian Stan and Martin Donovan at the The Apprentice red carpet at the 77th annual Cannes Film Festival on May 20. (Getty Images) (Stephane Cardinale - Corbis via Getty Images)

Following the film's debut at Cannes, the Trump campaign announced its intentions to sue the filmmakers. Spokesperson Steven Cheung said in a statement to Rolling Stone: "We will be filing a lawsuit to address the blatantly false assertions from these pretend filmmakers. This garbage is pure fiction which sensationalises lies that have been long debunked."

Read more: Trump Campaign Threatens Lawsuit Over ‘The Apprentice’ Film(Rolling Stone, 2-min read)

It was also revealed before the film came out that the film had received investment from billionaire Dan Snyder, who according to reports from Variety had donated money through production company Kinematics after believing the film would provide a flattering portrayal of Trump. It was said that when Snyder, a longtime Trump supporter, saw the film he was "furious" with it.

Despite this huge amount of buzz and drama, the critics who were able to watch the film at Cannes were not overly enthused by it — though that's not to say it wasn't without its redeeming features.

CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 20: Maria Bakalova attends the
The film is said to have elicited audible gasps from the audience for a scene depicting Donald Trump's alleged rape of his first wife Ivana, played by Maria Bakalova. (FilmMagic) (Marc Piasecki via Getty Images)

Variety's Owen Gleiberman called the film "a spirited, entertaining, and not overly cheeky docudrama" that is "sharp" and "avoids cheap shots" when it comes to telling Trump's story.

The critic said: "For its first half, “The Apprentice” is kind of a knockout: the inside look at how Trump evolved that so many of us have imagined for so long, and seeing it play out is both convincing and riveting. Yet I have an issue with the movie, and it all pivots around the mystery of Trump. I don’t think The Apprentice ever penetrates it."

IndieWire's David Ehrlich felt similarly, arguing that the issue is that while Abassi might be interested in examining the myth behind the man a lot of Americans have "lost the ability to muster" the same curiosity after his presidential years.

NEW YORK, NY - 1983:  Roy Cohn (L) and Donald Trump attend the Trump Tower opening in October 1983 at The Trump Tower in New York City.  (Photo by Sonia Moskowitz/Getty Images)
The film explores how Donald Trump's mentorship under lawyer Roy Cohn led to his rise to power. The pair are pictured here in 1983. (Getty Images) (Sonia Moskowitz via Getty Images)

"The Apprentice does what it can to dramatise how the student became — and surpassed — his teacher by too perfectly embodying all of his lessons," the critic wrote. "If those efforts aren’t even close to enough for this movie to shine a meaningful new light on the most overexposed man who’s ever lived (or his mentor), that’s largely because it can’t get around the fact that Trump is too base and pathological to be of much dramatic interest."

Even so, the critic heaped praise on Stan's portrayal of Trump, something that The Hollywood Reporter's David Rooney also commended.

Read more: The most exciting films at Cannes 2024

Rooney wrote: "Some will argue that Stan’s performance in the central role is a touch too likeable, but the actor does an excellent job, going beyond impersonation to capture the essence of the man. In a character study of a public figure both widely parodied and unwittingly self-parodying, Stan gives us a more nuanced take on what makes him tick."

CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 20:  Gabriel Sherman, Maria Bakalova, Ali Abbasi, Sebastian Stan and Martin Donovan depart the
While The Apprentice received an 8-minute standing ovation, critics appeared underwhelmed by the film and mainly commended the cast for their performances. (Getty Images) (Stephane Cardinale - Corbis via Getty Images)

The Evening Standard's Jo-Ann Titmarsh called Stan and Strong "fantastic", adding: "Stan navigates from naïve wannabe to glowering mogul and never loses his way or slips into parody. His vanity about his hair and his looks is on display from the beginning, but in the early years he is unsure of himself and there is a vulnerability about him. Strong is also utterly believable as Cohn, a man as vain as his disciple and certainly as dangerous."

Despite this, the critic felt that "the story is too linear and the screenplay, by Gabriel Sherman, full of scenes seen many times before" but the humour is commendable.

The Wrap's Steve Pond called The Apprentice "a true-life horror story in some ways", adding: "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."

Writing that while the film can be both "amusing" and "disturbing" it felt like Abbasi "could have done something weirder, wilder and more satisfying".

Studiocanal will release The Apprentice in UK and Irish cinemas in 2024.