The late, American-born actress Jean Seberg certainly led a fascinating life, from her first film, 1957’s Saint Joan (in which she was actually burned during the film’s climactic sequence) to becoming the darling of the French New Wave thanks to her breakthrough starring role in 1960’s Breathless. But the first 10 or so years of her career were strictly about the movies, and Seberg wanted desperately to contribute more to society than just what Hollywood or the French wanted her to be. In the late 1960s, she began contributing to and affiliating herself with the Black Panther Party, and this is the portion of her life that director Benedict Andrews’s (Una) latest film, Seberg, has chosen to focus upon.
It’s difficult to think of a better actor to play this icon than Kristen Stewart, who not only embodies elements of Seberg’s look but also her rebellious attitude. Seberg wanted to assist in the civil rights movement, and she did so through a romantic connection with Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), married to Dorothy Jamal (Zazie Beetz), and very keen at extracting money from white supporters by pushing messages of unity and peace rather than separation and conflict.
If Seberg were simply a film about the actress-turned-activist, it might have made for a more enticing work, but the film extends its reach into the world of the FBI agents assigned to keep tabs on Seberg when she came back to the United States from France and began aligning herself with the Panthers. Jack O’Connell plays FBI Agent Jack Solomon, an expert in sound recording and surveillance, who is given the task to record every movement Seberg makes and eventually use this evidence to discredit her and possibly even ruin her life if necessary.
Agent Solomon seems like a decent man with a wife (Margaret Qualley) studying to be a doctor, but the case takes over his life and eventually makes him feel quite guilty being the pawn of both his brutish co-worker (Vince Vaughn) and boss (Colm Meaney), not to mention the bureau’s head, J. Edgar Hoover, who seems more interested in destroying lives than weeding out credible threats against America. But here’s the problem: I didn’t really care about any of this part of the movie. It would have been far more interesting to watch Seberg fall into a pit of despair and paranoia than know every move the FBI was making against her. Not knowing all the facts is far more terrifying and compelling than knowing everything.
I’m assuming that most of what transpires between Solomon and Seberg (they only have two scenes together) didn’t actually happen, and that the filmmakers are taking all sorts of dramatic license with their story, and I’m okay with that if it makes the telling more engaging. But it doesn’t. When it was revealed that the government was spying on its own citizens, including many celebrities, the lid was blown off of this type of investigation and Seberg was vindicated, but by then she had moved back to France permanently to be with her husband Romain Gary (Yvan Attal) and their son. Her career in Hollywood was gone forever.
As mentioned, Stewart’s performance isn’t the issue with Seberg. She does a terrific job not only capturing the actress’ style of acting but her passion for doing the right thing, even if ego and white guilt were primary motivators in her life. There are some fun details given to her making the appalling Western musical Paint Your Wagon, as well as the unmemorable Western Macho Callahan, neither of which is mentioned by name, if I’m not mistaken. Perhaps one day, we’ll get a worthy telling of the life of Jean Seberg that will include some of what happened to her in this period of her life. But she was so much more than what ultimately destroyed her and even drove her to a suicide attempt. I’d even lobby for Stewart to play her once again if such a film is ever made, but this is a sluggish, ham-fisted attempt at creating something shocking and provocative, where simply telling the story would be far more engaging.
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