by Alan Yudman
In the 1960’s the FBI engaged in a domestic counterintelligence program called COINTELPRO. The idea was to discredit American political organizations J. Edgar Hoover believed were dangerous to the country. Most were minorities like the Black Panthers and Martin Luther King, Jr. or the Communist Party or ant-Vietnam protesters.
Actress Jean Seberg became a target and eventually a victim of a campaign of gossip and lies because of her connections to the Black Panthers… a campaign that eventually led to her apparent suicide. Her journey from activism to madness is the story behind the movie SEBERG.
Seberg was a star of the French New Wave beginning with Jean-Luc Goddard’s BREATHLESS. She went on to star in movies like SAINT JOAN, PAINT YOUR WAGON and AIRPORT. But amid her success she began donating money to the Panthers and to a community organization headed by activist Hakim Jamal.
The movie picks up with Seberg (Kristen Stewart) returning to Hollywood to audition for PAINT YOUR WAGON. On the plane she meets Jamal who is escorting Betty Shabazz back to the United States. On the tarmac at LAX she is photographed next to Jamal giving the Black Power salute. A photo that would change her life.
It put her in the FBI’s crosshairs, a place from which she would never really escape. At the start we see her as a caring if somewhat naïve celebrity who is hell bent on challenging authority and helping those she perceives are targeted by the U.S. Government. The FBI begins a campaign of surveillance and eventually counterintelligence that sends her spiraling into paranoia, depression and madness. Seberg has an affair with Jamal, a fact the FBI spreads to the gossip columnists. The whole mess is supervised by an agent named Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell). At the beginning he believes in the cause but has a crisis of conscience as he realizes the dark depths of the FBI’S program.
Stewart is a fine actress, but she frequently comes across as cold and distant. That makes Seberg’s descent into madness feel performative rather than truly emotional. Vince Vaughn plays a true asshole of an FBI agent. He concocts lies about Seberg that are leaked to reporters. There is one scene at a dinner party where he is angry and abusive to his family. I’m not sure why we needed to see that. It was already clear he was a jerk. Other than Seberg, no character has any depth. They are merely archetypes of an activist, a racist FBI agent, an emotionally closed off French husband. No one has earned any of their emotions.
Anthony Mackie and Zazie Beets as Hakim and Dorothy Jamal are the only two who seem to do more with their characters than what is written on the page by screenwriters Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse. Benedict Andrews direction is fine, but everything in the movie just lies there.
The only thing the movie successfully portrays is the evil of the FBI’s COINTELPRO (read more about it here). That’s the sum total of its emotional depth, which is kind of sad considering the true tragic story of SEBERG.