The Trump Biopic Is Here. The Rape Scene Isn’t What Would Make Him Angriest.

Has any human being been less in need of the biopic treatment than Donald Trump? The implicit promise of the form is that it reveals not just facts about its subject—there are many better mediums for that, including the one you are presently engaging with—but something about their character that’s not visible to the microscope of history, something that can only be made clear by passing reality through the filter of fiction. The Apprentice, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival yesterday, promises to explain how Trump came to be Trump, through an account of his mentorship by the ruthless New York power broker Roy Cohn. But the movie, which was directed by Iranian-Danish filmmaker Ali Abbasi and written by political reporter Gabriel Sherman, tells us nothing we don’t already know, both in terms of its plot and, more fatally, its evaluation of both men’s souls.

That’s not to say that The Apprentice isn’t critical of Trump. It would be hard, in some ways, to think of a less flattering portrait. Sebastian Stan plays him as a hairsprayed vacuum of a man, a blank-eyed megalomaniac whose only gift is his monstrous self-regard. Although it charts his rise from a son of an outer-borough landlord to the spray-tanned face of Manhattan’s 1980s excess, it never grants him the glamour he so desperately sought. The film’s images have the washed-out colors of a VHS tape retrieved from the back of a Goodwill, as if the lens was sprayed with a fresh coat of bronzer before every take. It shows Trump stiffing contractors, scarfing down amphetamines, and raping his wife, Ivana (Borat 2’s Maria Bakalova), when she dares to suggest he could stand to familiarize himself with female anatomy. But while Variety labeled the movie “brutal,” that’s also a word that the film’s Trump and its Cohn, played by Jeremy Strong, frequently apply to themselves, a term that’s been brandished by his critics and embraced by his admirers.

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Although some early reviews have shied away from calling the violent intercourse between Donald and Ivana a rape scene—Deadline’s Pete Hammond called it a depiction of “intense sex” that is “likely to be controversial”—there’s no real question how Trump throwing his wife to the floor, ripping off her underwear, and forcing himself into her is meant to be read. But those who hold faith in the civil jury that found him liable for sexually abusing the journalist E. Jean Carroll won’t have their judgment bolstered by another fictional instance, and those who’ve dismissed, ignored, or simply reconciled themselves to such verdicts and reports, and even to Trump’s own admissions, won’t end up seeing The Apprentice, let alone being swayed by it. Besides, while Trump has denied his former wife’s allegations (which Ivana herself later claimed were “without merit”) and threatened to sue the filmmakers for dramatizing them, there’s a sense in which the scene depicts him exactly as he’d like to be seen: as a man who knows what he wants and takes it, without hesitation or apology.

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A truly damning moment, one of far too few in The Apprentice’s two hours, is the one that follows the rape: a hard cut from Trump thrusting away on top of his wife to a chipper montage of TV news coverage proclaiming the 1980s “the age of Trump.” Sherman, who wrote the Fox News exposé The Loudest Voice in the Room, is sharpest when he’s tracing—far too infrequently—the way Trump’s rise to prominence was not just enabled but almost wholly invented by a credulous news media looking to replace the urban unrest of the 1970s with a gleaming vision of the 1980s metropolis: a shining skyscraper on a hill. When a TV reporter asks him what he might do if his grandiose real estate developments don’t bear fruit, Trump says he might run for president, and though he immediately treats it as a joke, she doesn’t even try to conceal her delight at his juicy response: “Great answer.” Late in the film, he meets with Tony Schwartz, the co-author of Trump: The Art of the Deal, who’s puzzled why Trump wants a journalist who’s been critical of him to write his book. This time, Trump assures him, Schwartz will be nice, “because I’m paying you.”

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Any portrayal of Cohn exists in the shadow of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, and Sherman’s script doesn’t give Strong anything like the fuel he’d need to escape its orbit. But Cohn is at least a more complicated figure than Trump, a political prime mover from the Army–McCarthy hearings to the Reagan administration who was also a profoundly closeted gay man (although, as at least Kushner’s version of Cohn argues, not a homosexual, because a homosexual is a man with no power). Even from the beginning, Strong seems to be preparing us for Cohn’s downfall, the period when, weakened by AIDS and abandoned by his allies, he lost his law license and faded from public view. But it’s an attempt at empathy that, in a movie painted in such broad strokes, comes across as merely mawkish. We’re meant to feel the cruel sting of Trump abandoning the man who taught him everything, discarding a loyal ally as soon as he’s no longer of use, but there’s no weight to his betrayal because we never expect him to do anything else.

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In an interview after The Apprentice’s premiere, Abbasi offered to screen the film for Trump personally, adding “I don’t necessarily think that this is a movie he would dislike.” But rather than taking him up on that offer, Trump’s spokesperson called it a film that “doesn’t even deserve a place in the straight-to-DVD section of a bargain bin at a soon-to-be-closed discount movie store.” Trump has known for decades that there’s nothing more powerful than the ability to hold people’s attention, and the sickest burn is suggesting that the movie isn’t even worth a hate-watch. The mere existence of The Apprentice flatters his vanity and burnishes his legend. Its most devastating sequence doesn’t involve backstabbing or lawbreaking or even sexual assault. It’s when the film intercuts Cohn’s funeral with Trump undergoing liposuction and a scalp reduction to reduce his bald spot. He’s not a titan of industry or a power player or a future world leader, just a middle-aged man with a bulging gut and thinning hair. Trump can’t sue for that sequence, but it’s the one that would make him truly furious.

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