Jean Seberg deserves better than this dreary and shallow offering from filmmaker Benedict Andrews
For a film with such an obvious political charge, Benedict Andrews’s Seberg rarely seems to know exactly what it’s saying. It’s a film about the perils of voyeurism that simply can’t wait to show you its heroine in various gratuitous states of undress. It’s a film about the civil rights movement that constantly sidelines its black characters. And it’s a film about the heinous crimes of the FBI that dedicates an entire, mostly dull subplot to the moral crisis of a sympathetic and entirely fictional Bureau agent.
The true story of Jean Seberg (played here by Kristen Stewart) is both infuriating and deeply sad. An American icon of French New Wave cinema, she used her fame and money to support civil rights causes, but when she started directly financing the Black Panthers in the late ‘60s, the FBI decided to rip her life apart. They bugged her home, created sex scandals, and generally harassed her to the point where she attempted suicide in 1970 and probably died by suicide in 1979. Seberg focuses on the period between 1968 and 1971, where the FBI’s efforts effectively exiled her from America.
At this point, it’s almost impossible for Stewart to turn in an uninteresting performance, and she does, on occasion, manage to elevate Seberg above the dreary mediocrity that it mostly trades in. But she can only do so much. Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse’s script is sloppy, always unsure of where exactly to place its focus and not smart enough to deal with the big issues at play. When Seberg drills down into its subject’s justified paranoia it is engaging, Jean frantically scouring her house and hotel rooms for listening devices and falling deeper and deeper into a total nervous breakdown, but even these moments are stymied by their utter predictability.
As the fictionalised FBI surveillance specialist Jack Solomon, meanwhile, Jack O’Connell is completely wasted, Seberg just more evidence on the pile that this talented young actor is in dire need of a better agent. The flashes of his home life are uninvolving, adding too much wheel spinning to a relatively short film, and the film’s attempts to grant him some of the story’s grandest moments of moral reflection leave a very bad taste in the mouth. Faring even worse are Anthony Mackie and Zazie Beetz as activist couple Hakim and Dorothy Jamal, their struggle uncomfortably reduced to window dressing. To include the Jamals’ mission to educate and unite various disparate black communities but then only use it for a white character’s learning curve makes Seberg feel politically shallow.
As a portrait of the impact of the FBI’s unconstitutional and frequently salacious COINTELPRO activities, Seberg does offer up some interesting historical lessons on how untrustworthy American law enforcement has always been, and Stewart is impressive. But a film with this lead character inside this story really shouldn’t have any trouble finding a moral centre, and yet its contrived both sides-ism leaves it empty of any ethical or political power. A truly progressive, risk-taking activist like Jean Seberg deserves a fiery, passionate film, not this workmanlike, by-the-numbers biopic.Where to watch