2019 | rated R | starring Kristen Stewart, Jack O’Connell, Anthony Mackie, Zazie Beets, Vince Vaughn | directed by Benedict Andrews | 1 hr 42 mins |
History is told to us in school very linearly. We are told, for example, that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone and that President Andrew Garfield was shot, but rarely do we hear that Bell showed up at the White House after Garfield was shot with a homemade metal detector attempting to locate and dislodge the bullet. I’m a sucker for that kind of historical intersection where these figures all lived at the same time and passed through each other stories. It’s why I was curious about Seberg. I wasn’t familiar with how the life of Jean Seberg, American plucked from obscurity to French with Jean Luc-Goddard’s Breathless, was woven through the American Black Panther movement and J. Edgwar Hoover’s surveillance. Seberg starts promising, with Kristen Stewart in her welcome art house mode looking the part, but isn’t nearly as interesting as all this sounds.
Under the flat, vision-less directorial eye of Benedict Andrews, Seberg is comfortable looking and feeling like another basic cable bio-pic. Even more tiresome, part of a recent sub-genre of these movies whose only interest is showing their protagonist as a victim of persecution and oppression. Like Dalton Trumbo, Alan Turing and Billie Jean King, Jean Seberg is defined in this movie as a martyr for a cause. It even opens with Seberg on the set of a Joan of Arc movie quite literally playing the role of a martyr. Subtle, isn’t it? In the ever-present debate about Kristen Stewart’s acting ability, she’s fine here. Stewart is always fascinating because in the hands of the right filmmaker or a project she believes in (The Runaways, Clouds of Sils Maria, Personal Shopper) she’s very good and in the hands of a studio movie she doesn’t she seems to actively rebel against it on screen. Here she hasn’t made up her mind, giving the character ticks but offered little to work with. However, those more familiar with Jean Seberg than I will probably find more issues with Stewart’s portrayal.
It starts our quite good, with Seberg restless in her movie career with her very French and very open husband travelling back to Hollywood with her agent (Stephen Root) to audition for Paint Your Wagon (a movie deemed “irrelevant” by Seberg) and meets up with a Jamal (Anthony Mackie), a Black Panther leader pulling the movement together in the wake of Malcolm X’s assassination. Then the movie splits off to follow the FBI agents (Jack O’Connell and Vince Vaughn) wiretapping Jamal and ultimately Seberg. When this movie was released critics raked it over the coals for it’s sympathetic portrayal of Hoover’s FBI – as apparently villains believing they are the hero of their own story only works when it’s a villain they like – but that conflicted portrayal of O’Connell’s agent by itself is not the problem, it would have made a more complex and interesting movie. Instead, O’Connell only has two modes – a Jonathan Groff in Mindhunter type questioning what they are doing to their subject or dogged agent flipping out at his wife (Margaret Qualley) and asking the director (Colm Meaney) for ever more wire taps. It’s unclear why he’s doing anything. On that note, it’s unclear why Seberg is doing anything she does. Her dive into the civil rights movement is treated as a universal good instead of probing her character for why she would take such a risk – particularly while being shown without any concern for her own safety.
Seberg itself is very linear, getting more cliche and less interesting as it goes. The third act overtaken by Jean Seberg’s descent into paranoia and suicide attempts with melodrama. The movie isn’t interested in Why? and it’s not interested in molding the life of Jean Seberg into an artistic vision. It’s just going by the numbers, right up until the ending text boxes telling us what happened. It’s been said before and should be said again, there is no reason any movie should end with blocks of text telling us what happened next. Show, don’t type.