Directed by Benedict Andrews, Seberg is a bland period piece on Jean Seberg (Kristen Stewart), an American actress who wants to do more in life than acting, and decides to become politically active. The film is not a complete biopic, but focuses on her involvement with the Black Panthers and the FBI investigation that led to both her breakdown/suicide at age 40. The film fails in recounting the life of one of the most iconic and troubled movie stars of the 1960s.
During a flight from Paris to Los Angeles, Seberg offers to give up her seat in first class to Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X, and her cousin Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie). Jamal makes a scene about white privilege, so Seberg feels compelled to let them have her seat. As they get to the tarmac of LAX, a group of photographers appear, and she heads right towards them and raises her fist in the Black Power Salute, seemingly after her sudden conversion on the flight. Two nearby FBI agents of Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell) and his partner Car (Vince Vaughan) watch this happen, and soon begin to stalk her. Seberg drives to Jamal’s home that night, and the two begin an affair that is being recorded by the FBI.
Andrews’s directing is flat, and the beginning of the story takes a while to get somewhere interesting. It isn’t until the FBI investigation that the action begins. During this time, Andrews shifts his focus to Solomon and how the viciousness of the FBI’s pursuit affects him. He begins to see how their treatment is inhumane, and is going too far. Since this character is fictional, it feels like the white savior character that repeatedly pops up in movies to make audiences feel better about mistreatment towards people of color. All these things actually happened to Seberg and others, so a fictional composite character portraying the conscience of the film seems odd, diminishing the trauma this woman and others experienced. The film only gives a microscopic view of the extent of this ongoing slander campaign.
The cliche-ridden screenplay drags this movie down, until there is little meaning left. Characters repeat nonsense phrases like “playing with fire” or “in the crosshairs,” it feels awkward and diminishes the severity of Jean’s situation. The director spent more time focused on the aesthetics of the film, like the modernist Los Angeles home and the retro wardrobe, instead of the internal meaning of his premise.
The only part that will engage an audience is the FBI’s poor treatment of Seberg. From their intrusive behavior of tapping her phones, stalking her house, and spreading false lies in an attempt to embarrass her in front of the world, it is all just horrifying to watch (there are echoes of Coppola’s The Conversation in how her justified paranoia manifests itself). Jean Seberg had such a complex, troubled life at this point and the film underplays the severity of it.
Kristen Stewart is the only reason the film is worth watching, as she embodies the role of a star hurtling toward a breakdown. Stewart is not doing an impersonation; she is playing around with the limited material given to her. Her commitment to the character carries the film.