Pop culture creates goddesses only to offer them up for sacrifice, and over the course of her career, Kristen Stewart has no doubt gotten close enough to that pyre to smell the brimstone. So she’s a natural to play Jean Seberg in “Seberg,” about the Iowa girl who became an international movie star, only to be targeted and ultimately destroyed by the FBI because of her affiliation with the Black Panthers.
And while “Seberg” is rarely as great as its lead actress, the film does shed light on a tragic corner of American history that’s not discussed nearly enough — the U.S. citizens who had their lives shattered by J. Edgar Hoover’s secret COINTELPRO (counter-intelligence program) surveillance that targeted anyone the FBI considered “subversive,” be they Vietnam War protesters, black or indigenous activists, even environmentalists.
Jean Seberg’s life comes with its own built-in metaphor: She began her screen career being literally set on fire by director Otto Preminger on the set of “Saint Joan” and ended her life after being torched by Hoover. (It’s a similar trajectory explored by Mark Rappaport in his brilliant essay film “From the Journals of Jean Seberg,” a movie long overdue for a Blu-ray release.)
We see Stewart recreate iconic moments from “Saint Joan” and from Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” — the movie that made Seberg an icon — but “Seberg” director Benedict Andrews (“Una”) and screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse (“The Aftermath”) focus on 1968-1971, when Seberg’s affair with activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie) put her in Hoover’s crosshairs. (And in case we missed that, the script uses the word “crosshairs” multiple times.)
The writers also focus on FBI agent Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell), newly transferred to Los Angeles and assigned to spy on Jamal alongside Carl (Vince Vaughn), mainly so “Seberg” can give us a literal good-cop/bad-cop scenario: Solomon’s conscience is increasingly plagued over the Bureau’s ratf–king of Seberg (which includes planting a fake gossip item about her being pregnant with Jamal’s baby, which was published by columnist Joyce Haber — may her legacy always be tainted). Carl, seemingly channeling Michael Shannon’s character in “The Shape of Water,” is reactionary, racist, and abusive to his wife and daughter. It’s a phony and contrived scenario; if any FBI agent acted like Solomon, the film doesn’t present it in a believable way, and it’s ultimately a distraction from what should be the central story.
“Seberg” most finds its footing when it focuses on Jean herself. We empathize as she wends her way through a Hollywood that sticks her in misguided productions like “Paint Your Wagon,” bonds with Hakim’s wife Dorothy (the brilliant Zazie Beetz) — who later tells off Jean once the FBI has made the affair public — and becomes increasingly paranoid about surveillance, and rightly so, even though her concerns are mostly shrugged off by her oblivious husband, Romain Gary (played by Yvan Attal, “Munich”). (Alas, the movie doesn’t really know what to do with Margaret Qualley, as Jack’s med-student wife.)
Stewart never attempts to completely impersonate Jean Seberg — she eschews the late actress’ flat Midwestern vowels — but at certain points in the film, and at certain angles, she’s a dead ringer. What Stewart does capture, more importantly, is the spark in Seberg’s eyes; she also knows how to turn off that spark, which adds additional heartbreak to the later scenes of a despairing, suicidal Seberg.
Costume designer Michael Wilkinson (“Aladdin”) and set decorator Christy McIrwin (“mid90s”) capture a sense of late-’60s chic without getting too campy about it, and the talented Rachel Morrison (“Black Panther”) knows exactly how to turn the Los Angeles sun into a warm glow or a harsh glare when necessary. And while director Andrews, most known for his stage work, doesn’t always know how to lift this story beyond banal biopic choices, he’s certainly tapped into something special with Stewart, who continues to reveal new layers with each film.
“Seberg” leaves a lot on the floor, even with its focus on only a handful of years — the actress’ affair with Clint Eastwood during the chaotic shoot of “Paint Your Wagon,” for instance, is never mentioned — but it’s a fitting tribute to a woman whose life was undone over her desire to make a difference.
“Seberg” premieres on Amazon Prime May 15, 2020.