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Donald Trump's film gets almost everything right

Donald Trump's film gets almost everything right


Many people would disagree with me, but I think there is a mystery at the heart of Donald Trump. Many believe there is no mystery, just a very visible and documented legacy of bad behavior, selfishness, used car salesman brazenness, criminal transgressions and abuse of power. They would say that Trump lies, insults, demonstrates, bullies, whistles racist dogs so loud they are no longer whistles, and that he is increasingly open about the authoritarian president he envisions becoming .

This is all totally true, but also too easy. What all this leaves out about the precise type of man Donald Trump is is this:

When Trump made “Stop the Steal” the new cornerstone of his ideology, arguing, starting on election night 2020, that Joe Biden had stolen the election, was this simply the mother of all Trump lies ? (In other words, did he know it wasn't true?) Or was it a lie that Trump told so often, in such an ego-boosting way, that he came to believe it himself? -even ? This latter phenomenon would be much stranger than the first. And I would say that's a profound question. I would also say that if you try to meditate on the correct scenario for too long, your head will explode.

If all you care about is the behavior and its consequences, then the answer may be trivial. But if, like me, you believe that what motivates people – even famously corrupt leaders – is the key to their reality, then whether Donald Trump believes his own lies is part of our reality.

And that, in its own way, is the hook of “The Apprentice.” Written by journalist Gabriel Sherman and directed by Ali Abbasi (who made a splash two years ago with the Iranian serial killer drama “Holy Spider”), the film is a spirited, entertaining and not-too-brazen docudrama about years in which Donald Trump became Donald Trump. That is to say: it was not always so.

“The Apprentice” is sharp and scathing, but it avoids low blows. This is not a comedy; it’s about capturing what actually happened. The film begins in 1973, when Trump (Sebastian Stan) is a 27-year-old playboy who is vice president of his father's real estate company. In the first scene, Donald is sitting at The Club, the members-only restaurant and nightclub on E. 55th St. that he recently joined. He's talking to a model, but his eyes are fixed on the men in the room, people like Si Newhouse, who have what Trump dreams of: power.

And that's when two eyes focus on him. Sitting at a table in the next room is Roy Cohn (Jeremy Strong), the infamous HUAC lawyer and architect of the Red Scare, who became famous as the man who sent the Rosenbergs to the electric chair. Twenty years later, he is a lawyer and private arranger and friends with everyone who matters (mafioso, politicians, media barons). He looks at Donald Trump like a hungry dragon looking at a virgin. Cohn's head is tilted downward, his black eyes are tilted upward (so that there is half an inch of white at the bottom of them). This is the Cohn Stare, and it can accurately be described as a homicidal stare. It's not that he wants to kill you. It’s because he wants to kill something – it will be you, or it will be another party in your name.

Cohn summons Trump to his table, and Jeremy Strong, speaking in a rapid, curt voice that throws insults like bullets, instantly possesses us. With short-cropped silver-gray hair and those all-seeing eyes, Strong magnetically embodies the Roy Cohn who turned bullying into a form of cutthroat vaudeville (and a new way to practice law), putting his scoundrel soul there- down, busting chops and balls with his misanthropic foreign Jewish locker room wit. He doesn't just cut, he's mean. And it's his friends! Trump, on the other hand, seems mild – perhaps incredibly mild if you've never seen a clip of him from the '70s. He looks like a big, shaggy, overgrown boy, and although he has his real estate ambition , his power broker dreams (he drives a Caddy with a license plate that says DJT), he has no idea how ruthless he's going to have to be to Catch 'em.

Cohn the reptile looks at Trump and sees a mark, an ally, perhaps a child with potential. He's very handsome (people keep comparing him to Robert Redford), and that counts; it is also a piece of unmolded clay. As Trump explains, his family is in a difficult situation that could bring them down. The Justice Department has filed a lawsuit against the Trump Organization for discriminating against black people when it comes to renting their apartments. Since the family is actually guilty, there seems to be no way out. But Cohn, right there, offers a plan on how to do it. He says: thwart the government. This is part of his strategy of attack, attack, attack (the first of his three rules of life).

Trump returns to his family in Flushing, and while they eat dinner, we see how the family operates. The father and leader, Fred Trump (perfectly played by an unrecognizable Martin Donovan), dominates the company – and the family – like a mob boss. He treats his sons cruelly, especially his namesake, Freddy (Charlie Carrick), who is like the Fredo of the family; his father openly mocks him because he is an airline pilot. Donald is the Michael Corleone: innocent and untested, standing by his father, but with a cold glint in his eye. Thanks to Roy, he thinks he has found a way to save the family. More than that, Roy is the father his own father would not be: the one who teaches him how to obtain power, instead of crushing it through rivalry.

That Roy Cohn was able to defeat the government on behalf of the Trump Organization, thus neutralizing the discrimination lawsuit, is a famous story. If we are to believe Gabriel Sherman's screenplay, “The Apprentice” tells an even more scandalous version. In the film, Cohn is going to lose his case and he knows it. (The Trump Organization has rental forms for black candidates marked with the letter “C.”) So, over dinner, he and Donald have an informal meeting with the federal official who authorizes the deal. He won't move. But then Cohn takes out a manila envelope. Inside are photographs of the official frolicking with cabin boys in Cancun. Cohn, who is gay, turns his own closeted existence into a form of power. An agreement is reached. And Trump is on the move, his empire built on a poison pill.

New York, at this point, is on the brink of bankruptcy, in the dystopian era of the 70s, and Donald is determined to change that. His dream is to buy the crumbling Commodore Hotel on 42nd Street, right next to Grand Central Terminal, and transform it into a luxury Grand Hyatt hotel. The neighborhood is so decrepit that most people think it's crazy. But this is where we can see something about Trump: that he wasn't just a charlatan with a big mouth, that he had insight. He was right about New York: he would come back, and deals like his could help bring that back. But the art of the deal, in this case, comes from Roy Cohn. He is the one who greases the wheels to make this happen. And Donald is now his protégé.

Ali Abbasi directs “The Apprentice” with a lot of jagged handheld shots that look a little too much like television for me, but they do the job; they convince us of the reality we are witnessing. So does the setting – as Trump begins to develop a taste for more lavish surroundings, the film recreates every inch of shit-gold baroque vulgarity. And Sebastian Stan's performance is a marvel. He understands Trump's heavy, geeky body language, the imposing gait with his hands held stiffly at his sides, and just as much he understands the facial language. He begins with an open, boyish look, beneath the mop of hair that we can see Donald is obsessed with, but as the film progresses, this look, by infinitesimal degrees, becomes more and more calculated.

Donald is now part of the party, rubbing shoulders with people like Rupert Murdoch, George Steinbrenner and Andy Warhol, whom he meets without even knowing who he is (even though the film suggests they have a lot in common). At the Club, he meets Ivana Zelníčková (Maria Bakalova), a Czechoslovakian party girl as tough as he is. He woos her with a combination of charm and stalkerish relentlessness. We see Trump absorbing Cohn's three lessons, the other two being: admit nothing, deny everything; and no matter how beaten you are, never admit defeat. But Cohn's real lesson is one of attitude – that deadly stance. We see it trickling down, little by little, to Trump.

For its first half, “The Apprentice” is something of a coup de grace: the inside look at how Trump has evolved that so many of us have imagined for so long, and watching it unfold is both compelling and fascinating. Still, I have one problem with the movie, and it's all about the Trump mystery. I don't think “The Apprentice” ever gets into it.

There comes a point where Trump gets too big for his britches, ignoring another lesson of Cohn's worldview, which is that one must maneuver in the real world. Cohn questions Trump's obsession with building a casino in Atlantic City, a place that Cohn says has “reached its peak.” He is right. Trump ends up making bad investments, flying too close to the sun, and ultimately shutting Roy out – treating Roy the same way Roy treats everyone else. It's an evolution of supreme hubris, especially when you think back to the slightly sheepish kid from Flushing waiting in line to kiss Cohn's ring.

The problem is that we don't really see where this aspect of Trump comes from. In a relatively quick period, starting around the time of the Atlantic City deal, and running through the time he annoys the gangster and Cohn's pal Tony Salerno (Joe Pingue), resulting in the in place of the half-built Trump Tower. pulled by Salerno's henchmen, Donald transforms into the Trump we know today: the toxic and arrogant machine-man with malignant narcissism, who treats everyone around him like shit. His marriage to Ivana turns into a loveless debacle. He turns on his downward spiraling alcoholic brother like a stranger. He becomes so heartless that he makes Roy Cohn look civil. He turns on Cohn, partly because Cohn has AIDS, which freaks Donald out.

We know that Donald Trump did all of these things. But what we don't see, watching “The Apprentice,” is where Trump's sociopathic 3.0 side comes from. His issues with his father, as presented in the film, won't explain him (not really). The fact that he became addicted to amphetamines, taking diet pills 24 hours a day, was part of it. Yet the Trump we see passes through the looking glass of betrayal, exploiting his empire – and what remains of his emotions – to within an inch of his life. And once that happens, we're just watching a well-acted TV movie of familiar anecdotes built around the Trump we already know. At this point, “The Apprentice,” as good as it is, becomes a lot less interesting. The mystery that the film never solves is what Trump was thinking, deep down, when he chose to become Donald Trump.




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