Producers: Fred Berger, Kate Garwood, Bradley Pitz, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Stephen Hopkins, Marina Acton and Alan Ritchson Director: Benedict Andrews Screenplay: Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse Cast: Kristen Stewart, Jack O’Connell, Anthony Mackie, Margaret Qualley, Zazie Beetz, Yvan Attal, Stephen Root, Colm Meaney, Vince Vaughn, Gabriel Sky, Jade Pettyjohn and Grantham Coleman Distributor: Amazon Studios
The first image of Jean Seberg (Kristen Stewart) in Benedict Andrews’ film about her later years is a recreation of the scene from her first picture, Otto Preminger’s “Saint Joan” (1957), in which the Iowa-born actress, not yet twenty and chosen for the part via a highly-publicized talent search, is burned at the stake as a heretic. The filmmakers are presenting the point of their effort from the very start in a most unsubtle way: what will follow, they’re foretelling, is an account of Seberg’s own virtual execution at the hands of the FBI, which, on orders from J. Edgar Hoover, hounded and harassed her so viciously because of her support of the black power movement that her mental stability was affected, leading to death—presumably by suicide, though the matter is still debated—in 1979.
The script’s argument is certainly a defensible one, but unhappily it is laid out in such a heavy-handed fashion that it comes across as hectoring rather than compelling.
There is, however, one major element that commands attention and admiration: the central performance by Kristen Stewart, which is no mere exercise in mimicry. Stewart inhabits Seberg’s character so fully that the rest of the picture comes across as rather meretricious by comparison, being set in a world of FBI machination that’s almost comically overdone, with Colm Meany and Vince Vaughn so nastily heartless that both should have been supplied with moustaches to twirl. More human is their gung-ho but principled young colleague Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell), picked to lead the anti-Seberg crew because of his wizardry in electronic surveillance, as primitive as the technology seems by today’s standards.
The operation is accidentally occasioned in 1968, when Seberg, leaving behind her husband, novelist Romain Gary (Yvan Attal) and young son (Gabriel Sky) in Paris, where she’s been based for almost a decade, travels with her agent (Stephen Root) back to the U.S. for film work. On the plane she meets Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), a member of the Black Panthers, and becomes active in the group’s work, including the school it has set up in which Jamal’s wife Dorothy (Zazie Beetz) teaches.
It’s that which raises alarms at the FBI and leads to the agency’s decision to investigate, and then to undermine, Seberg. The effort includes bugging her residences and, ultimately, releasing information harmful to her career and marriage—most notably, revelations concerning a dalliance with Jamal that culminates in an ugly scene with Dorothy, and rumors about the paternity of the child Seberg is pregnant with (a girl who dies shortly after being born).
As depicted here, the series of events, however historically accurate they might be, is portrayed in highly melodramatic terms, with a good deal of leaden dialogue. Still, Stewart manages to bring a sense of vivid reality to the material, no matter how hackneyed it becomes. It’s another fine performance from a young actress who, like Seberg, has overcome the amateurishness of her early work to emerge as a formidable screen presence, even if as characters who are emotionally fragile.
A pity the rest of the cast doesn’t match her. O’Connell is playing a straight-arrow type who’s rather a stiff, and can’t do much with the part; neither can Margaret Qualley as his wife, whose purpose seems to be to prick his conscience into a realization of how morally rotten the agency’s modus operandi is. Mackie and Beetz get by in roles that are perfunctorily written, but Meany, and especially Vaughn, play so broadly that they’re caricatures. A dinner scene in which Vaughn’s brutish Agent Kowalski berates his daughter (Jade Pettyjohn), who’s adopted a Seberg-style hairdo, is the nadir.
Despite flaws in important areas, though, “Seberg” is lovingly crafted from a visual standpoint. Jahmin Assa’s production design captures the period and Rachel Morrison’s cinematography embraces its more luxurious aspects, as well as the glamour of the outfits Michael Wilkinson has designed for Stewart. Editor Pamela Martin keeps things moving smartly, though the chronology occasionally becomes elusive.
In the end, “Seberg” misses the opportunity to do full justice to a fascinating, tragic life, but Stewart comes close to salvaging it despite its flaws.