In 1968, American actress Jean Seberg, already a political activist, began a relationship with a black revolutionary, bringing her into the orbit of the Black Panthers. This made her a target of the FBI, who spent the next few years harassing her in an effort to destroy her public image. This period in Seberg’s life is dramatized in Seberg, an inert production that has little more to say than “she was treated unfairly.” It does a poor job of allowing us to really get to know any of the players involved. Seberg, especially, is an odd enigma whose motivations are never clear. This version of her seems like a naïve woman getting overwhelmed by a system she did not understand; yet, the real Jean Seberg did not fit that description at all. The result is an unfocused, dull, mess that comes nowhere near doing its subject justice.
Jean Seberg was flying from France to Los Angeles when she met Hakim Jamal, the late Malcolm X’s cousin, who came into first class to make a scene. On the runway, while Jamal and his people are surrounded by press, Seberg stands next to him and does the Black Power salute. That gesture brings her into Jamal’s life and puts her into the crosshairs of the FBI.
That one moment is the inciting incident that turns her existence upside down. But why did she do it? Was it because she truly believed in the cause? Or did she just do it to get attention? I am pretty sure it is the former, though Seberg (95 minutes without the end credits) does not create a particularly persuasive case for it. It focuses so much on the ways the FBI tried to defame and break her that it forgets to actually show us who she was.
Jean Seberg is played by Kristen Stewart, an actress I have a high opinion of. This is not one of her better performances. The role is so underwritten that she seems unsure of how to portray her. Thus, Seberg becomes a one-note victim. In Stewart’s hands, she is tentative, paranoid, terrified that she is always being watched. That is reasonable under the circumstances; she was being surveilled at all times. However, her intentions and desires are buried beneath that approach.
Part of the problem is her story is partially seen through the eyes of another character. Inexplicably, Stewart is a co-lead along with Jack O’Connell as FBI Agent Jack Solomon. Solomon is assigned to her case and eventually grows uncomfortable with what his superiors are asking him to do. He sees Seberg as an innocent unaware of what she has gotten herself caught up in, so that is how the movie sees her. He seems like an unnecessary creation of the screenplay, telling us no information we could not have figured out for ourselves and adding nothing important thematically. The fact that it takes away from the subject’s story, giving him a character arc while leaving her without one, makes it all the more egregious.
Seberg is a missed opportunity to shed light on an intriguing time in American history, as well as an actress whose interesting story has never been told on-screen before. It still has not. The filmmakers attempt to depict Jean Seberg as a hero who suffered for her bravery. Unfortunately, too much remains unexplored, so she mainly comes off as a supporting player in her own life.
1¾ out of 5
Cast: Kristen Stewart as Jean Seberg
Jack O’Connell as Jack Solomon
Vince Vaughn as Carl Kowalski
Anthony Mackie as Hakim Jamal
Yvan Attal as Romain Gary
Margaret Qualley as Linette Solomon
Zazie Beetz as Dorothy Jamal
Directed by Benedict Andrews
Written by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse