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22 May 2024

Ali Abbasi’s gift to Donald Trump at Cannes

A star-studded film festival will never effectively oppose an anti-elite, populist candidate.

By Kara Kennedy

The Apprentice, a new fictional biopic based on Donald Trump, features scenes of “rape, erectile dysfunction, baldness and betrayal”. On Monday it received an eight-minute standing ovation from celebrities and movie moguls at Cannes, a glittery film festival in the south of France that awards the coveted Palm D’Or award for the best film showing there each year. The movie’s Iranian-Danish director, Ali Abbasi, was so pleased with the reaction that he jumped up and down, dishevelling his tuxedo. “There is no nice metaphorical way to deal with fascism,” the director said. “It’s time to make movies relevant. It’s time to make movies political again.”

Forget the strange idea that movies were, somehow, ever not political. This statement reveals Abbasi’s questionable campaigning tactics. The director might chalk the standing ovation up as a win. But most Americans – most voters – do not work in this insular and self-congratulatory industry. Also, the mood on the red carpet at Cannes is a far cry from the one in the US, the place where having opinions about Donald Trump actually matters.

When it comes to controversy, brutal character sketches, lawsuits and movie stardom, Trump is no stranger. For 14 years he was at the helm of the reality television show The Apprentice. Before that, in 1992, he played himself (a big-shot hotelier) in Home Alone 2. After those, he traded in his celebrity status to merely become the president of the United States. But his media savvy, as much about generating negative attention as positive, has always been an asset, not a liability. By this time in the 2016 race, the New York Times calculated he had received $2bn worth of “earned media”, the insider term for free coverage. The adage that all coverage is good coverage may not be true for everyone. But for a politician in the pose of a populist fighting elites, a hateful depiction by the Hollywood set is great coverage.

Scenes in the movie vary from the unflattering to allusions of base criminality: the protagonist rapes his wife Ivana; he gets liposuction and surgery for a bald spot; he becomes addicted to diet pills; he betrays his closest friends. It wasn’t long before Team Trump threatened the film-makers with legal action. “This garbage is pure fiction which sensationalises lies that have been long debunked,” said Steven Cheung, Trump’s campaign spokesperson. “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.” He added that they intend to file a lawsuit “to address the blatantly false assertions from these pretend film-makers”. Abbasi retaliated to the threats: “Everybody talks about him suing a lot of people – they don’t talk about his success rate though, you know?” earning him bursts of laughter from the crowd.

Official rulings often don’t matter when the court of public opinion has made up its mind. And if there’s one thing that Trump voters hate – fairly or not – it’s being told how to think by Hollywood elites. If disrupting the fortunes of Trump’s White House bid was the goal, Abbasi’s attempt could hardly be more self-defeating.

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Speak to Americans and you’ll learn that the circus surrounding Trump – the indictments, the testimonies, the tell-alls – does little to dissuade his voters. The people ticking his name at the ballot box already know who he is, what he’s done. At best, the chaos helps him. Not least when it engenders rebukes from people in tuxedos who attend galas and give one another awards. What could be better for a man who claims to be taking on the “powerful corporations, media elites and political dynasties” than to be ridiculed by them at an exclusive event for film industry professionals?

So who is Abbasi’s biopic for? He’s made it clear that The Apprentice is political. His only problem is that Never Trumpers don’t need any more ammunition to hate Donald Trump. And Maga voters will find a reason to support him anywhere they can, no matter how much adulation The Apprentice receives this week in France.

If the people in the crowd giving a standing ovation to The Apprentice in Cannes were savvy, they would know their own feelings of catharsis will be the only positive thing to emerge from the saga. Because, frustrating as it may be for them, there is really nothing you can do to effectively oppose an anti-elite, anti-globalist, populist candidate from the Cannes Film Festival. Obviously.

[See also: In defence of the new Luddism]

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