Fact and fiction make uneasy bedfellows in Seberg. The basic facts in the case of chic young American actress Jean Seberg and her support of the Black Power movement in the turbulent 1960s are presented with reasonable accuracy by filmmaker Benedict Andrews. That she was targeted in a reprehensible smear campaign by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI that ultimately hounded her to her (probable) suicide also has the distressing and thoroughly documented ring of truth.
But the entirely fictionalized character of a stalwart young FBI recruit assigned to her case who begins to question the Bureau’s tactics loosens the movie’s grip on reality. Not only do Andrews and scriptwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse give equal dramatic weight to this fictional counterpoint inserted into the middle of Seberg’s story, the time and energy spent on it might have been better used in exploring the complexities of Seberg herself—whose actions and motives are never made quite comprehensible.
And that’s not the only fudging of facts that doesn’t quite work in this movie. The Black Power leader with whom Seberg has an affair with in the movie seems to be a fusion of two different men in the movement that the real-life Seberg knew at the time, Raymond Hewitt and Hakim Jamal. Actor Anthony Mackie most resembles the scholarly, bespectacled Hewitt in the role, although he is identified throughout as Jamal. That the filmmakers seem to think one composite character is sufficient to stand in for black rage in general suggests how superficial their approach can be.
Kristen Stewart stars as Jean, first glimpsed on screen being burned at the stake in a recreation of Seberg’s first movie role in Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan. Which, for better or worse, cements in the viewer’s mind that this will be a story about a victim. Having worked mostly in France since then (most notably in Jean-Luc Goddard’s seminal New Wave film Breathless), Jean leaves her French husband, novelist Romain Gary (Yvan Attal), and their young son in Paris in 1968 to fly back to the states with her agent for a film role.
When their mostly empty first-class cabin is invaded by Black Power activist Hakim Jamal (Mackie), demanding better accommodations for the widow of Malcolm X he is escorting, Jean offers up their seats. When they land in Los Angeles, and Jamal and his fellows greet the camera-snapping press corps with the Black Power salute, Jean scurries over to raise her fist in solidarity. No one thinks to accuse her of co-opting their tarmac event for what looks like a publicity stunt.
Nor do the filmmakers bother to explore what motivates her, beyond a few vague pronouncements that she wants “to make a difference.” Jamal takes it as evidence of her credibility when she drives her fancy convertible to his house in Compton late at night; they plunge immediately into an affair, and she’s soon writing checks for the school he runs with his wife, Dorothy (Zazie Beetz). Are her motives purely carnal? Is it white guilt? Is she just really empathetic? Rather than answer those questions, the movie moves on to the story it’s most interested in: Jean’s victimization by the FBI.
Fresh young recruit Jack (Jack O’Connell) is assigned by his new boss (Colm Meany) to assist lowlife veteran Carl (Vince Vaughn) in persecuting Jean with constant surveillance, wiretaps, home invasion, and a campaign to defame her in the press and undermine her career. The doubts that Jack finally begins to have about their methods, as Jean becomes increasingly paranoid and unstable, is not really the story we are here to see. Ultimately, it’s only so much window-dressing that can’t quite disguise the fact that this movie doesn’t actually know what makes its nominal heroine tick.
** (out of four)
With Kristen Stewart, Jack O’Connell, Margaret Qualley, Anthony Mackie and Vince Vaughn. Written by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse. Directed by Benedict Andrews. An Amazon Studios release. Rated R. 102 minutes.