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Everything we know about the film and controversy

Everything we know about the film and controversy

The Donald Trump biopic The Apprentice debuted at the Cannes Film Festival on Monday to a packed house and earned an eight-minute standing ovation — but not everyone is clapping.

The former president’s legal team sent a cease and desist letter to the filmmakers to block its U.S. sale and release. Trump attorney David A. Warrington accused the filmmakers of defamation and illegal election interference, calling the film a “concoction of lies.”

The film’s producers have responded, insisting it is a “fair and balanced portrait.”

The film, directed by Ali Abbasi with a screenplay by journalist Gabriel Sherman, chronicles the rise of Trump, played by Sebastian Stan (Pam & Tommy), as he navigates the cutthroat world of real estate in 1970s and ’80s New York City. His infamous mentor, Roy Cohn, played by Jeremy Strong (Succession), and his first wife, Ivana, played by Borat 2’s breakout star Maria Bakalova, are pivotal figures in the film.

Critics have been divided, with the Deadline calling the film a “smart, sharp and surprising origin story” while the Guardian called it “a cartoon version of chump-in-chief Donald Trump’s early years.” Both audiences and critics have called out an “explosive” assault scene — showing Stan’s Trump character raping Ivana — that has generated debate around the film. Meanwhile, as the real Trump sits in court for his ongoing hush money trial, his 2024 presidential campaign spokesperson, Steven Cheung, blasted the film as “garbage.

The film was reportedly finished days before its premiere and is already sparking controversy. Here’s what you need to know.

Cheung said in a statement on Monday that Trump’s team is planning to file a lawsuit “to address the blatantly false assertions from these pretend filmmakers.”

He called the film “pure fiction which sensationalizes lies that have been long debunked” and added: “This is election interference by Hollywood elites, who know that President Trump will retake the White House and beat their candidate of choice because nothing they have done has worked.”

On Wednesday, Warrington sent the three-page cease and desist letter to Abbasi and Sherman, writing, “The Movie presents itself as a factual biography of Mr. Trump, yet nothing could be further from the truth. It is a concoction of lies that repeatedly defames President Trump and constitutes direct foreign interference in America’s elections.”

The letter attacked the filmmakers and cast for past statements they have made about Trump. For instance, it said Strong compared Trump’s rhetoric to that of Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and Joseph Goebbels in a statement Abbasi read aloud at a Cannes news conference. It also accused Sherman, who covers politics for Vanity Fair, of having “Trump Derangement Syndrome” for his coverage of the politician. The letter gave filmmakers a deadline of May 27 to respond.

On Friday, the filmmakers released a statement saying, “The film is a fair and balanced portrait of the former president. We want everyone to see it and then decide.”

Abbasi was unfazed by the threats of a lawsuit while at Cannes.

“Donald’s team should wait to watch the movie before they start suing us,” the director said at a press conference. “Everybody talks about him suing a lot of people. They don’t talk about his success rate, though.”

The title is a reference to the reality competition show starring and produced by Trump himself, which aired on NBC from 2004 to 2017. The film chronicles the former president’s origin story as a New York real estate developer before his foray into politics. It shows Trump building his empire under the influence of Cohn, a feared lawyer who took him under his wing and who later died of AIDS-related complications in 1986, which is also highlighted in the film.

Cohn teaches Trump how to be relentless and unforgiving in business as the real estate mogul navigates a rocky marriage with Ivana, an addiction to pills and a distant father in Fred Trump, played by Martin Donovan.

As of Tuesday, The Apprentice had received a 52 out of 100 score on Metacritic, based on nine reviews, and a 69% score on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 13 reviews.

Multiple outlets called out several “explosive” scenes, including the alleged rape, erectile dysfunction and Trump getting hair transplant surgery as well as liposuction. Rolling Stone described the film as more of a love story between Trump and Cohn, equating it to the likes of Frankenstein, about a mad scientist who “watches his creation turn into a monster.”

While the movie isn’t exactly sympathetic toward Trump, according to the New York Times, the outlet said it’s an attempt to “at least explain” how he became one of the most polarizing political figures in history.

In a written statement by Strong read aloud by Abbasi during a press conference at Cannes on Tuesday, the actor said the film offers insight into Trump’s psychology and his attacks on the media, which he said were shaped during Trump’s apprenticeship under Cohn in the 1980s.

Stan admitted he “had to distance” himself from the present-day Trump to give an authentic performance of his early years: “There’s a lot out there to see and watch and read of interviews that he gave in that time,” he said.

Maria Bakalova stars as Ivana Trump.Maria Bakalova stars as Ivana Trump.

Maria Bakalova stars as Ivana Trump, who the actress says she “fell in love with” while filming The Apprentice. (Tailored Films)

Bakalova, playing Trump’s first wife, Ivana, who died in July 2022 at age 73, said she “fell in love with” the Czechoslovakia-born model and businesswoman, who she called “ahead of her time.”

“It’s inspiring to see somebody pursuing their dreams, ambitions, driven by the idea of just achieving it,” the Bulgarian-born actress said.

As far as showing the film to the former president, Abbasi said he’s more than willing to do so.

“I don’t necessarily think that this is a movie he would dislike,” the director said at the press conference. “I would offer to go and meet him wherever he wants and talk about the context of the movie, have a screening and have a chat afterwards — if that’s interesting to anyone at the Trump campaign.”

A scene in the film depicts Trump telling Ivana that he’s no longer attracted to her before throwing her to the ground and sexually assaulting her in their New York apartment. The scene ignited controversy at Cannes, according to Variety, with one female audience member calling it “gross.”

In the 1993 book Lost Tycoon: The Many Lives of Donald J. Trump, it was reported that Ivana revealed during her divorce deposition in the early 1990s that Trump had raped her in 1989. She disavowed those claims in 2015, insisting that the story is “totally without merit.”

Billionaire Dan Snyder, former owner of the Washington Commanders and longtime donor to Trump’s political campaigns, was an investor in the film and believed it was going to be a flattering portrayal of Trump. After seeing a cut of the film in February, Snyder became “furious” about the rape scene, according to Variety, and started sending cease-and-desist letters to Kinematics, which produced the film.

Kinematics president Emanuel Nuñez, however, insists that Snyder was never involved in creative aspects of the film: “All creative and business decisions involving The Apprentice have always been and continue to be solely made by Kinematics,” he told Variety.

As of now, The Apprentice doesn’t have a U.S. distribution deal in place, per the New York Times. However, the film was sold at Cannes to StudioCanal, which will release the film in the United Kingdom and Ireland later this year.

Abbasi has said he hopes to release it in mid-September, timed to the presidential debates. The Washington Post reports that there has been “intense” interest from buyers at Cannes and that interested parties had to bring lawyers with them due to the impending threat of a lawsuit.

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