The Apprentice Movie Sparks Debate: How Big a Role Should Hollywood Play In Election Year Politics?

Spoilers

For some reason, there has yet to be a mainstream Hollywood feature film about Donald Trump dramatizing any aspect of Trump’s life, with an actor portraying him.

There have been countless documentaries about Trump, both for him and against him, and various comedians have portrayed him, including Alec Baldwin and later James Austin Johnson on Saturday Night Live.

The Comey Rule, a 2020 Showtime miniseries based on the memoirs of former FBI director James Comey, starred Brendan Gleeson as the 45th president, opposite Jeff Daniels as Comey.

At the same time, quite a few feature films, like The Oath in 2018 and Irresistible and The Hunt in 2020, have attempted to make dramatic hay out of the political controversies of the Trump years.

However, those who have not featured a Trump-based character have not referenced him directly. 

However, what the movies have avoided is a direct dramatization of any part of Trump’s life, whether his presidency or his many decades of celebrity before that.

Numerous best-selling books have been published about Trump, but none have been adapted into movies.

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Several great movies have been made about Richard Nixon, and Oliver Stone directed a film about George W. Bush, W, in 2008, his last year in office. A biopic of Ronald Reagan, starring Dennis Quaid, is set for release this August.

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Why not any Trump movies? The reason seems obvious: Trump is an extremely polarizing figure, and audiences have radically different views about what they think of him.

And with Trump in the news every day anyway, the question must be raised as to why anyone would pay to see something about subject matter that’s already in the news, possibly the very same day audiences could see the movie.

There has also never been a feature film about President Joseph Biden, likely for similar reasons.

But now, a major Trump feature film is on the way. It’s called The Apprentice, and while it may share a title with Trump’s popular reality show from the early Aughts, it doesn’t cover that period.

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Instead, The Apprentice is set in the 1970s and ’80s, specifically Trump’s relationship with the notorious attorney Roy Cohn.

Sebastian Stan, best known as the MCU’s Winter Soldier, plays Trump, while Jeremy Strong, best known from Succession, plays Cohn.

Maria Bakalova, from Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, plays Trump’s first wife, Ivana, while veteran actor Martin Donovan plays Trump’s father, Fred Trump.

The film was written by journalist Gabriel Sherman, whose book was adapted into the Showtime series The Loudest Voice, while Ali Abbasi is the director.

The Apprentice debuted at the Cannes Film Festival on May 25, although it does not yet have North American distribution, so it’s unclear when the public will see it.

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Critics gave the film better-than-average reviews, earning a 78 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on the first 36 reviews from Cannes.

Trump strikes back

However, Trumpworld’s reaction was less enthusiastic. A campaign spokesman denounced The Apprentice as “pure fiction that sensationalizes lies that have been long debunked.”

Variety reported a couple of days later that the Trump presidential campaign had filed a cease-and-desist letter to prevent the film’s release and warn its producers not to make a deal for its distribution.

The film, that report said, “presents a damning portrait of the former president as an ethically compromised philanderer who stiffs contractors and cuts deals with the mob to get his buildings completed.”

It also, per the report, depicts scenes in which Trump sexually assaults Ivana and abuses amphetamines.

Cease-and-desist letters tend not to derail movie releases, although distributors may be skittish about making a deal with that sort of threat hanging over their heads.

Is this right?

Another question is whether it’s proper for Hollywood to make a movie about one of the candidates for release in the fall of a general election year. Doing so wouldn’t violate equal-time laws, which only apply to television.

The First Amendment and the doctrine against prior restraint would seem to block any government efforts to suppress the film.

It’s also unclear if the release of one feature film would have a greater effect on the election result than other actions, whether donations to candidates by Hollywood figures or actors and filmmakers appearing at rallies or party conventions, most likely with the Democrats.

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Trump, for his part, has also sought to cultivate the support of celebrities, including figures from the hip-hop world.

Ice Cube, Kanye West, Snoop Dogg, and Lil Wayne have all directly endorsed Trump or implied their support.

The intersections of such music and politics were the subject of the recent Hulu documentary Hip Hop and the White House.

“Where’s my Roy Cohn?”

There are plenty of reasons to look forward to this film. The details of the 1970s and ’80s period sound promising.

Trump’s relationship with Roy Cohn is fertile ground for storytelling, especially since Trump is known to complain, including during his current trial, that his current lawyers pale compared to Cohn.

Roy Cohn is a meaty role in which numerous great actors have sunk their teeth into in different versions of the play Angels of America, including Al Pacino in the HBO version from 2003.

James Woods drew acclaim for his turn as Cohn in the 1992 biopic Citizen Cohn, also for HBO.

Donald Trump likely does not want a critical feature film made about him.

But whether he wins in November or loses, this movie will almost certainly not be the reason why.

Stephen Silver is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. You can follow more of his work on his Substack The SS Ben Hecht, by Stephen Silver.You can follow him on X.

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