PLOT: The true story of actress Jean Seberg (Kristen Stewart) who, in the sixties, was a victim of the FBI’s COINTELPRO surveillance program as a result of her revolutionary political leanings.
REVIEW: Jean Seberg deserves a great biopic. A left-leaning actress at a time when such a thing was dangerous (a far cry from the current climate), she found herself targeted by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI thanks to her sympathies, with them eventually not only ruining her career with planted disinformation but also arguably costing her a lot more in the end. She wound up committing suicide in 1979, but SEBERG is set a decade earlier.
Rather than emphasize the cost to Seberg and her career, the odd choice is made to frame this through the eyes of a conscience-stricken FBI agent, a person who never existed. This is the strangest choice for a biopic since they decided to make Bruce Lee a side-character in THE BIRTH OF THE DRAGON. As such this is a frustrating film. When it focuses on Seberg, it’s fairly compelling, but it grinds to a halt every time we’re asked to sympathize with Jack O’Connell’s nice guy agent character.
Even still, SEBERG, as flawed as it is, is still worth watching for Stewart’s spot-on performance in the lead. Seberg was arguably the original pixie dream girl in films like Jean-Luc Goddard’s BREATHLESS and Stewart captures her essence, warts and all. Like many of her era, Seberg was something of a dilettante. Sure, she sympathized with the Black Panthers, but the point is made here that, to a certain extent, her fascination was skin deep, with her not thinking twice about sleeping with Anthony Mackie’s Hakim Jamal despite him being a family man with a wife Seberg’s supposed to be friends with (Zazie Beetz in a thankless role).
As flawed as she is, you feel for her with the COINTELPRO surveillance downright Machiavellian, although Seberg was far from alone in receiving this treatment. Yet, she arguably paid the highest price, and Stewart makes you have empathy for her without ever glossing over her rough edges.
By contrast, Jack O’Connell is dull in a thoroughly two-dimensional role as the nice guy agent who feels bad for the surveillance he takes part in. Despite their efforts to make him palatable, he’s a by-the-numbers character and one who really should never have become the lead in what should have been Stewart’s movie. Vince Vaughn has a thinly written part and seems like a waste playing a one-note character, a racist, wife-beating FBI agent, considering the great work he’s been doing in movies like DRAGGED ACROSS CONCRETE, while Anthony Mackie, similarly, has been used far more effectively in other recent films, such as the yet unreleased SYNCHRONIC. Margaret Qualley is especially wasted as O’Connell’s wife, with her existing as little more than a sounding board for O’Connell’s conscience.
While I’m certain everyone involved with SEBERG, from director Benedict Andrews on down probably intended this to pay tribute to an unfairly ignored but important figure from Hollywood history, she’s done a disservice by not being allowed to dominate the movie that’s named in her honor. There was no real need for a character like O’Connell to be the audience surrogate, as Stewart’s good enough you’ll empathize with her more than enough for it to be effective. In the end, this is a frustrating missed opportunity although it tells a worthwhile story.