Jean Seberg is best known for playing opposite Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean Luc Godard’s “Breathless” and her debut as Joan of Arc in “Saint Joan (1057).” What is not known so well is that she was also the target of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI for her involvement with the Black Panthers in the 1960s and that part of her life, and death, is told in “Seberg.”
Laura's Review: C
On a 1968 flight from Paris to L.A., a young Hollywood actress riding the French New Wave was drawn to Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie) , joining him on the tarmac to raise a Black Power fist for photographers. But her support of civil rights groups like the Black Panthers made her one of the targets of the F.B.I.’s COINTELPRO project, and their constant surveillance, harassment and smearing proved the undoing of “Seberg.”
Screenwriters Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse ("Frankie & Alice," "The Aftermath") turn poetic license into dubious fictionalization told with leaden dialogue frequently guilty of speechifying. This has the most unfortunate effect of weighing down Kristen Stewart’s delicate performance. It is fitting that the first American actor to win France’s Cesar award should be cast as the girl from the Midwest who became an icon of the French New Wave and while director Benedict Andrews mostly keeps her compelling work front and center, it is as if he’s set a precious stone in tin.
The film begins at the end of Otto Preminger's 1957 "Saint Joan," where the actress suffered burns as her character burned at the stake, a symbol for the story that will follow. But once Joan aligns herself with the Black Panthers (here shown doing what the group began with, ensuring black schoolchildren received adequate food and education), the introduction of fictitious F.B.I. agent Jack Solomon (Jack O'Connell) distracts. In this age where the F.B.I. are under fire, Solomon stands as moral conscience during the J. Edgar Hoover era, cast alongside the far more nefarious likes of the toxic masculinity of agent Carl Kowalski (Vince Vaughn) and the evil machinations of their boss Frank Ellroy (Colm Meaney), intent on ‘neutralizing’ Seberg.
As shown here, Seberg immediately engages in an affair with Jamal, something which has no basis in fact, ruining his marriage to Dorothy Jamal (Zazie Beetz) when she receives a recording of their lovemaking a la Coretta King. When the actress becomes pregnant, the F.B.I. sends tips to Hollywood gossips stating that the baby belongs to Jamal (this is true except for the specificity of Jamal) and not her French husband Romain Gary (Yvan Attal). The F.B.I.’s campaign made Seberg paranoid and, she claimed, caused the loss of her child. She would attempt suicide many times thereafter.
Steward is really strong here, tasked with recreating the iconic finale of Godard’s “Breathless” and doing it justice. She evokes the young woman’s empathy for the civil rights movements of the time and projects the frailty and mental instability of coming under fire for it. But the film is simply dragged down by a dual plotline that wastes time painting Solomon’s wife (Margaret Qualley) as a victim of male chauvinism and Jamal’s wife as one betrayed. The last years of Seberg’s life, including her fourth marriage and the mysteriously sad circumstances of her death are given short shrift.
Robin's Review: B
My knowledge of Jean Seberg has been relegated, pretty much by her appearance in Godard’s film and her 1957 debut for Otto Preminger. So, the actor’s radicalism and political activism during the 60s were brand new to me.
Director Benedict Andrews introduces us to Jean during the filming of “Saint Joan” then jumps to 1968. While traveling with her manager (Stephen Root) in first-class, there is a commotion by one of the passengers, Black Panther activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), who wants to pay to have the widow of Malcolm X moved to first class and is refused. Seberg happily gives up her seat for the widow. This begins Seberg’s entry into revolutionary politics as she speaks for and funds the Black Panther Party.
This is also when Seberg, because of her ties to the Panthers, comes under the scrutiny of the FBI, personified in the film by Jack O’Connell as special agent Jack Solomon. Solomon id’s Jean as a person of interest in the ongoing investigation into the Panther Party and she comes under intense scrutiny by the bureau, The story, by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, focuses on this scrutiny and, especially, the negative impact it has on the life of Jean Seberg.
Kristen Stewart does a fine job in embodying the titular star as she unwittingly comes under FBI scrutiny because of her humanity and desire to help people. Because these people were under investigation by the FBI, Seberg soon became a target of the highest levels of the FBI, including, per “Seberg,” J. Edgar Hoover himself.
As it becomes clear to Seberg, through various means, that she is an FBI target, the paranoia grows and firmly implants itself into Jean’s mind. But, as the saying goes: “Just because you are paranoid and think that everyone is out to get you does not mean they are not out to get you.” That is a scary thought, especially at this time when our faith in the government lay in tatters