‘The Apprentice’ Review: Sebastian Stan Plays Donald Trump in a Docudrama That Nails Everything About Him but His Mystery

A lot of people would disagree with me, but I think there’s a mystery at the heart of Donald Trump. Many believe there’s no mystery, just a highly visible and documented legacy of bad behavior, selfishness, used-car-salesman effrontery, criminal transgressions, and abuse of power. They would say that Trump lies, slurs, showboats, bullies, toots racist dog whistles so loudly they’re not whistles anymore, and is increasingly open about the authoritarian president he plans to be.

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

More from Variety

When Trump made “Stop the steal” the new cornerstone of his ideology, arguing, from the 2020 Election Night onward, that Joe Biden had stolen the election, was it 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-shoring-up way, that he had come to believe it himself? The latter phenomenon would be far stranger than the former. And I would argue that it’s a profound question. I’d also argue that if you try to meditate too long on which scenario is correct, your head will explode.

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

And that, in its 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 movie is a spirited, entertaining, and not overly cheeky docudrama about the years in which Donald Trump came to be Donald Trump. Which is to say: He wasn’t always.

“The Apprentice” is sharp and scathing, but it avoids cheap shots. It’s not a comedy; it’s out to capture what really happened. The film opens in 1973, when Trump (Sebastian Stan) is a 27-year-old playboy who’s vice president of his father’s real-estate company. In the first scene, Donald is seated at Le Club, the members-only restaurant and nightclub on E. 55th St. that he’d recently joined. He’s chatting up a model, but his eyes are fixated on the men in the room, people like Si Newhouse, who have what Trump craves: power.

And that’s when a pair of eyes fixate on him. Seated at a table in the next room is Roy Cohn (Jeremy Strong), the infamous HUAC lawyer and Red Scare architect who became notorious for being the man who sent the Rosenbergs to the electric chair. Twenty years later, he’s a private lawyer and fixer who’s friends with everyone that counts (mobsters, politicians, media barons). He eyes Donald Trump like a hungry dragon looking at a virgin. Cohn’s head is tilted down, his black eyes are tilted up (so that there’s half an inch of white at the bottom of them). This is the Cohn Stare, and it can accurately be described as a look of homicide. It’s not that he wants to kill you. It’s that he wants to kill something — it will be you, or it will be another party on your behalf.

Cohn summons Trump over to his table, and Jeremy Strong, speaking in a fast, clipped voice that fires insults like bullets, instantly possesses us. With silver-gray hair cut short and those eyes that see all, Strong does a magnetic impersonation of the Roy Cohn who turned bullying into a form of cutthroat vaudeville (and a new way to practice law), putting his scoundrel soul right out there, busting chops and balls with his misanthropic Jewish-outsider locker-room wit. He’s not just cutting, he’s nasty. And that’s to his friends! Trump, by contrast, seems soft — maybe shockingly soft if you’ve never seen a clip of him from the ’70s. He’s like a big shaggy overgrown boy, and though he’s got 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 get them.

Cohn the reptile looks at Trump and sees a mark, an ally, maybe a kid with potential. He’s very good-looking (people keep comparing him to Robert Redford), and that matters; he’s also a lump of unmolded clay. As Trump explains, his family is in a pickle that could take them down. The Justice Department has filed a lawsuit against the Trump Organization for discriminating against Black people when it comes to who they’ll rent their apartments to. Since the family is, in fact, guilty, there doesn’t seem to be a way out of it. But Cohn, right there, floats a plan for how to do it. He says: countersue the government. It’s part of his strategy of attack, attack, attack (the first of his three rules for living).

Trump goes back to his family’s home in Flushing, and as they’re having dinner, we see how the family works. The father and leader, Fred Trump (perfectly played by an unrecognizable Martin Donovan), dominates the business — and the family — like a Mob boss. He treats his sons with cruelty, especially his namesake, Freddy (Charlie Carrick), who’s like the Fredo of the family; his father openly mocks him for being an airline pilot. Donald is the Michael Corleone: innocent and untested, knuckling under to his father, but with a cool gleam in his eye. Through Roy, he thinks he’s found a way to save the family. More than that, Roy is the father his own father wouldn’t be: the one who teaches him to get power, instead of squashing it out of rivalry.

That Roy Cohn successfully beat the government on behalf of the Trump Organization, neutering the discrimination suit, is a famous story. If Gabriel Sherman’s script is to be believed, “The Apprentice” tells an even more scandalous version. In the movie, Cohn is going to lose the case and knows it. (The Trump Organization has rent forms by Black applicants marked with the letter “C.”) So at a diner, he and Donald have a casual meeting with the federal official who’s authorizing the case. He won’t budge. But then Cohn pulls out a manila envelope. Inside it are photographs of the official frolicking with cabana boys in Cancun. Cohn, who is gay, turns his own closeted existence into a form of power. A deal is struck. And Trump is off and running, his empire built on a poison pill.

New York, at this point, is in its shabby edge-of-bankruptcy ’70s dystopian era, and Donald is determined to change that. His dream is to buy the boarded-up Commodore Hotel on 42nd St., right next to Grand Central Terminal, and turn it into a glittering luxury Grand Hyatt hotel. The area is so decrepit that most people think he’s nuts. But this is where we can see something about Trump: that he wasn’t just a charlatan with a big mouth — that he had a perception of things. He was right about New York: that it would come back, and that deals like his could be part of what brought it back. But the art of the deal, in this case, comes from Roy Cohn. He’s the one who greases the wheels to make it happen. And Donald is now his protégé.

Ali Abbasi stages the “The Apprentice” with a lot of jagged handheld shots that look a bit too much like television to my eyes, but they do the job; they convince us of the reality we’re seeing. So does the décor — as Trump starts to develop a taste for more lavish surroundings, the movie recreates every inch of baroque merde-gold vulgarity. And Sebastian Stan’s performance is a wonder. He gets Trump’s lumbering geek body language, the imposing gait with his hands held stiffly at his sides, and just as much he gets the facial language. He starts out with an open, boyish look, under the mop of hair we can see Donald is obsessed with, but as the movie goes on that look, by infinitesimal degrees, turns more and more calculated.

Donald is now the life of the party, rubbing shoulders with people like Rupert Murdoch, George Steinbrenner, and Andy Warhol, who he meets without even knowing who he is (though the film suggests they have a lot in common). At Le Club, he meets Ivana Zelníčková (Maria Bakalova), a Czechoslovakian party girl who’s every bit as tough as he’s becoming. He woos her through a combination of charm and stalkerish relentlessness. We see Trump absorb 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 killer stance. We see it bleed, bit by bit, into Trump.

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.

There’s a moment when Trump is getting too big for his britches, ignoring another lesson that’s there in the Cohn worldview, which is that you have to maneuver in the real world. Cohn questions Trump’s obsession with building a casino in Atlantic City, a place Cohn says has “peaked.” He’s right. Trump winds up making bad investments, flying too close to the sun, and ultimately shutting Roy out ­— treating Roy the way that Roy treats everyone else. It’s an evolution of supreme hubris, especially when you think back to the slightly sheepish kid from Flushing who lined up to kiss Cohn’s ring.

The trouble is, we don’t fully see where that side of Trump comes from. In a relatively quick period, starting from around the time of the Atlantic City deal, and building through the moment when he pisses off the Mobster and Cohn crony Tony Salerno (Joe Pingue), which results in the half-built Trump Tower being set on fire by Salerno’s goons, Donald turns into the Trump we know today: the toxically arrogant man-machine of malignant narcissism, who treats everyone around him like crap. His marriage to Ivana devolves 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, in part because Cohn has AIDS, which freaks Donald out.

We know Donald Trump did all these things. But what we don’t see, watching “The Apprentice,” is where the Sociopath 3.0 side of Trump comes from. His daddy issues, as the film presents them, won’t explain it (not really). The fact that he gets hooked on amphetamines, popping diet pills around the clock, is part of it. Yet the Trump we see goes through a looking glass of treachery, leveraging his empire — and what’s left of his emotions — to within an inch of his life. And once that happens, we’re simply watching a well-acted TV-movie made up of familiar anecdotes built around the Trump we already know. At that point, “The Apprentice,” good as much of it is, becomes far less interesting. The mystery the movie never solves is what Trump was thinking, deep down, when he chose to become Donald Trump.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.