Famed actress Jean Seberg may have reached international acclaim for her performance in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, but it is her life off screen that is the focus of Seberg. Director Benedict Andrews is specifically interested in the period of her life when the actress became a target of the FBI for supporting various civil rights organizations.
Andrews’ film opens in the late 1960’s as the French New Wave icon Seberg (Kristen Stewart), an American living in Paris with her husband Romain (Yvan Attal) and son, heads back to Los Angeles to prepare for her next film. On the flight she meets Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), a civil rights activist travelling with Martin Luther King’s widow. Instantly taken by Jamal’s charms, and wanting to do something meaningful, Seberg immediately uses her star power to lend support to the movement. An act that does not sit well with her agent Walt (Stephen Root).
Unbeknownst to Seberg, Jamal is one of many activists who is under surveillance by FBI agents such as Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell) and Carl Kowalski (Vince Vaughn). A fact that is further complicated when Seberg and Jamal, who has a wife (Zazie Beetz) and kids, begin having an affair. While interracial relationships are not illegal, the relationship and the fact that Seberg frequently donates to the Black Panther Party, moves her up the ranks on the FBI’s persons of interest list.
As Solomon bugs Seberg’s home and follows her as she meets with filmmakers and activists alike, he quickly finds himself drawn to the actress. This leads to an inner conflict as he becomes increasingly disheartened by the vicious smear campaigns that the government agency employs against her. Leaking audio recordings, and planting false stories in the paper, the FBI’s systematic assault on Seberg starts to push the actress to the brink.
Taking a traditional biopic structure and blending it with elements of a psychological thriller, Seberg had the potential to be a The Lives of Others style knock out. Unfortunately, it continually struggles with whose story it is really telling. On one hand, the film shine an important light on the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, in which the government surveyed and discredited any organization, from feminist to communist to civil rights, that they deemed a threat. However, in dedicating so much time to Solomon’s point of view, the film’s overall message becomes somewhat murky.
Seberg wants to give the impression that Solomon is eventually moved and changed by Seberg’s plight. Keeping with Jamal’s mantra that “if you can change one mind you can change the world.” The problem is that Solomon’s come to Jesus moment has little to do with the civil rights activism he is assigned to spy on. His feeling only concern Seberg’s distress and not the black lives who pay the biggest price in the film.
Andrews’ drama fairs much better when it focuses on the slow decline of Seberg’s mental state as a result of the investigation. Kristen Stewart carries the film on her back with her sensational performance. She skillfully captures the sense of paranoia that comes with knowing one’s privacy is being violated, but not knowing who is responsible. Even in the film’s rocky moments, Stewart ensures that Seberg remains a fascinating character. A woman whose privilege blinded her to the dangers and harsh reality that come with activism.
While Seberg does not quite reach the heights of other memorable biopics, there is still plenty to enjoy here. Stewart’s performance, and the work of the ensemble cast, help to elevate the film above its shortcomings. Seberg is a portrait of a woman who wanted to make positive change and paid a heavy price for it.