Review: ‘Seberg,’ starring Kristen Stewart

February 21, 2020

by Carla Hay

Kristen Stewart in “Seberg” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“Seberg”

Directed by Benedict Andrews

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States, France and briefly in Mexico, the biographical drama “Seberg” has a racially diverse cast of white and black characters representing the middle-class and upper-class.

Culture Clash: The film tells the story of American actress Jean Seberg, who was the target of FBI surveillance because of her support of left-wing civil-rights groups such as the Black Panthers.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to fans of Jean Seberg, Kristen Stewart (who plays Seberg in the movie) and people who like movies that have a very Hollywood version of real-life politically related events.

Jack O’Connell in “Seberg” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

The title of the “based on true story” drama “Seberg” should have been renamed “Seberg and Some FBI Guy Who Tried to Warn Her That They’re Out to Get Her.” That’s because even though the movie is supposed to be about American actress Jean Seberg (played by Kristen Stewart) during the first few years that she was the target of a political FBI intimidation campaign, much of the movie also focuses on the life of fictional FBI agent Jack Solomon (played by Jack O’Connell), one of the people tasked with making her life hell but he has a guilty conscience about it.

It’s one of the many disappointing choices made by the filmmakers of “Seberg,” which was directed by Benedict Andrews and written by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse. Based on the end results of how this movie was made, the filmmakers didn’t think Seberg was fascinating enough to show a more well-rounded view of her life, and instead they gave a lot of screen time to show the personal life of a fictional FBI agent.

Because Jack Solomon is a fictional character and the filmmakers want to make sure that his personal story is given almost as much weight as Seberg’s, the movie cheapens her real-life ordeal by spending so much time on backstories/subplots for other characters that were invented for this movie. There’s even a cliché “good cop/bad cop” duo that is the epitome of trite screenwriting.

Seberg was 40 years old when she died of an apparent suicide in Paris in 1979. The movie mainly depicts the years 1969 to 1971, when Seberg was one of the people targeted in the FBI’s then-secret COINTELPRO campaign, which investigated and harassed high-profile and influential people involved in left-wing politics. Because of the Freedom of Information Act, the media revealed details of COINTELPRO, which was under the leadership of then-FBI director Herbert Hoover, a known right-winger. The exposé of COINTELPRO happened after Seberg’s death.

“Seberg” begins with a brief scene with the actress filming her first movie, 1957’s “Saint Joan,” which was a critical and commercial flop, but that rough start to her movie career is not really mentioned in “Seberg.” The movie also skips over her turbulent first marriage to French attorney-turned-film-director François Moreuil (they were married from 1958 to 1960) and their contentious collaboration when he directed her in the 1961 film “Time Out for Love.”

Also omitted from the story is how she met and married her second husband: aviator/novelist/left-leaning political diplomat Romain Gary, who was 24 years older than Seberg. Gary was her husband from 1962 to 1970. (She gave birth to their son, Alexandre Diego, when Gary was still married to his previous wife.) And the movie definitely doesn’t show what happened to Jean after her much-maligned “Saint Joan” film debut, when she went on to experience international stardom with her breakthrough co-starring role in the 1960 French New Wave classic “Breathless.”

Instead, “Seberg” skips over all of that to show Jean, Romain (played by Yvan Attal) and their young son Diego (played by Gabriel Sky) at their home in France, where Jean says goodbye to them as she leaves to work on a movie in Los Angeles in 1969. (During most of her career, Seberg lived in France and made French and American films, so she spent a lot of time in the U.S. for work.)

While she’s headed to Los Angeles, two FBI agents (who are invented characters for this movie) are shown eavesdropping and doing surveillance recording of an African American political radical named Hakim Jamal (played by Anthony Mackie), who is a Black Panther supporter but not an official member of the Black Panther Party. (The Hakim character is based on the real-life Raymond Hewitt, who was a member of the Black Panther Party.) One of the FBI agents is the aforementioned Jack Solomon, and the other is Carl Kowalski (played by Vince Vaughn).

It’s established fairly early on in the movie who’s the “good cop” and who’s the “bad cop.” While Jack takes a more open-minded and methodical approach to his work, Carl takes a more aggressive “witch hunt” approach. While they’re spying on Hakim, the name of Jean Seberg comes up because the FBI has noticed that she’s been donating large sums of money to left-leaning civil-rights groups such as the Black Panthers and the NAACP. Carl thinks that the FBI should start spying on Seberg too, but Jack doesn’t want to rush to judgment and wants to see if there’s proof that she’s a threat to the U.S. government.

While sitting in the first-class section on the plane to Los Angeles with her agent Walt Breckman (played by Stephen Root, in another of the movie’s fictional character roles), Jean notices a commotion on the plane. It’s Hakim, who’s very angry with a flight attendant because Betty Shabazz (Malcom X’s widow) has been seated in the coach section, when Hakim says that Betty should be in the first-class section. It’s a “don’t you know who she is/show some respect” moment that catches the flustered flight-attendant off-guard.

The flight attendant tells Hakim that she can’t make the accommodation without a first-class ticket, and Hakim gets even angrier and says that he will pay for the ticket himself and he’s not going to sit down until the matter is resolved. Hakim makes it clear that he thinks the flight attendant is being racist. Jean is intrigued by Hakim’s fiery passion and tells him that he and Betty can have her and Walt’s seats. Walt looks slightly horrified.

The next thing you know, after the plane disembarks, Hakim is among a group of Black Panthers on the tarmac holding a photo op with the press.  (Remember, this was back in the 1960s, when people were allowed to be in certain areas of an airport where they can’t go now.) Jean sidles up to the group and holds up her fist in a “Black Power” gesture with them to show her solidarity.

Of course, this bold move doesn’t go unnoticed by Jack and Carl (or should we say Mutt and Jeff), who now know that Jean Seberg has definitely made it known to the public that she supports the Black Panthers, who were considered enemies of the state at the time. And in case viewers haven’t figured out that Carl is a racist, he makes it clear when he speculates why Jean wants to hang out with Hakim and the Black Panthers: “Who knows? Maybe she’s got a taste for dark meat on the bone.”

And wouldn’t you know, it isn’t long before Jean shows up in the middle of the night at the house where a married Hakim is staying to meet with other radical activists. While alone in the house, Hakim and Jean spend a little time flirting, and then they hop into bed together. The FBI has recorded it all.

Carl is infuriated and immediately wants to put Jean under intense surveillance, since he’s decided she’s now a “danger to society.” The movie implies that what really triggered the FBI witch hunt against her wasn’t the monetary donations to activists but because this famous white actress slept with a known black radical.

Carl takes this information to his superiors, and it isn’t long before the FBI approves of spying on and harassing Jean Seberg. While she’s away from her rented home to work on a film set, Jack breaks into the home and plants a bugging device on her phone. Meanwhile, as Hakim and Jean continue their hot’n’heavy affair, Hakim warns her that because he’s under FBI surveillance, she’ll become a target too.

At first, Jean doesn’t believe Hakim, but she eventually finds out the hard way how correct he was. Jean starts hanging out more with radical activists and donating money to their causes. She doesn’t believe in violence and instead chooses to support causes such as educational programs for kids and raising money to help improve low-income African American communities. Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale (played by Grantham Coleman) makes a very brief appearance in the story.

Hakim is more than happy to take Jean’s donations, but he tells Jean: “You’re running in here with nails looking for a cross to die on … You’re playing with fire.” We’ll never know if the real Jean Seberg ever received this type of corny lecture, but the words are particularly cringeworthy, considering that the real Jean Seberg starred in “Saint Joan,” a movie where she played French heroine Joan of Arc, who was burned at the stake.

Another thing that Hakim says to Jean that sounds straight out of Hokey Screenwriting 101 is when he tells her his philosophy on civil-rights activism: “One mind at a time. If you can change that, you can change the world.” He sounds more like Mother Teresa than Malcolm X.

There’s also a soap-opera-ish subplot where Hakim’s wife, Dorothy Jamal (played by Zazie Beetz, in a thankless role), finds out about the affair. How does she find out? Carl and Jack call her anonymously and play her a recording of Jean and Hakim having sex.

Not long after Dorothy confronts Jean about the affair (and Dorothy is a lot calmer about it than most spouses would be), Jean and Hakim end their fling. But the wheels have already been set in motion for the FBI to make Jean’s life miserable. She’s followed everywhere she goes, and she knows her house is bugged. And one day when she’s away at work, a bumbling FBI agent kills her Chihuahua because the dog won’t stop yapping when the agent is snooping around the house.

Speaking of FBI agents, the movie wastes a lot of time showing the personal lives of Jack and Carl. Jack’s wife Linette (played by Margaret Qualley) is a medical student who becomes increasingly disturbed by the signs that the FBI is harassing Jean Seberg. How does she know? Because Jack brings home FBI files that show the FBI is stalking Jean, and her leaves this paperwork indiscreetly out on the kitchen table. When Linette asks Jack about these files, he snaps at her and tells her it’s none of her business. There are also a few unnecessary scenes of Jack and Linette socializing with friends.

Meanwhile, Carl is every bit the jerk at home as he is on the job. His wife and young daughter cringe in fear when he loses his temper, which is pretty much any time they don’t do what he tells them to do. It turns out that Carl has a particular hatred of left-wingers because his adult son (who lives in San Francisco) has become a radical hippie. Did viewers really need to know all of this information for fictional characters? No.

“Seberg” then goes to even more ludicrous levels when Jack takes it upon himself to anonymously call Jean and warn her that the FBI harassment will get worse unless she disassociates herself from the civil-rights movement. Jean’s response is to yell an obscenity at him. You can’t really blame her, because she doesn’t know if the call is a prank or not, since Jack doesn’t identify himself.

The constant surveillance and harassment take a toll on Jean’s mental health and her marriage. She starts to drink heavily and she becomes very paranoid. While on a film set, she demands that a cameraman be fired because she’s convinced he’s a spy planted by the FBI. She yells at people who she thinks might be staring at her too long. And there’s one melodramatic scene where she’s tearing up a room while looking for surveillance, and she ends up in a sobbing heap on the floor.

While in Mexico filming a movie, she has an affair with a local man. And when the FBI hears about her pregnancy, they make sure to plant a story in the media that Hakim is the father. The scandal resulted in a tragedy that won’t be revealed in this review if you don’t know what happened in real life.

Stewart gives a hit-and-miss performance in this film. She’s at her best in the first half of the story, when there are glimpses of the passions that drove Jean to do what she did, knowing that she would risk her reputation and career. But when Jean goes through her downward spiral in the second half of the story, Stewart’s performance becomes a not-very-convincing caricature of a woman having a nervous breakdown. And FBI agent Jack does something at the end of the movie that defies all credibility of what someone in his position would do.

Unfortunately, because the movie skips all of Jean’s life before she got involved in radical activism, it doesn’t provide any context over what led her to this point and how she came to have these political views. Her relationship with second husband Romain is also an incomplete sketch, since viewers never see how Jean and Romain fell in love, as a basis of their marriage that’s tested during this traumatic period in their lives.

The movie’s supporting actors, costume design and production design are all very good, but those assets are wasted on an uneven story that oddly seems too concerned with making a heroic figure out of one of the FBI agents who willingly participated in this psychological torture.

Amazon Studios released “Seberg” in select U.S. cinemas on February 21, 2020. The movie originally had a very limited U.S. release in December 2019, to qualify for awards.