“You’re America’s sweetheart,” declares Jean Seberg’s agent at the start of the Seberg biopic. That wasn’t true back in 1968. Seberg was a struggling actress who’d survived bad reviews to finally find fame in France as the star of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. The film has her getting ready to make a new bid for American stardom in Paint Your Wagon, although she dismisses the musical western as “irrelevant.”
Still, Seberg is the kind of movie that lies about her being “America’s sweetheart” so that Kristen Stewart can seem more tragic as the troubled actress who went kind of nuts while under FBI surveillance. That starts as she meets militant Hakim Jamal on her flight to L.A. as he storms into first-class seating to demand better treatment for Malcolm X’s widow.
Seberg is also the kind of film where Hakim instantly seduces the actress into going public as a radical because the character can’t really exist as a woman with her own past. (Anthony Mackie plays Jamal – who warns Seberg about working with the Black Panthers, despite most of his own dialogue sounding more like Bobby Seale.) The script won’t care enough about its subject to mention a militant named Raymond Hewitt, or address other things that will make Jean Seberg more than a prop in her own story.
The latest Hollywood victim in all this is Kristen Stewart. The much-maligned actress had been enjoying an impressive streak of good performances in bad films. She showed off a sardonically sweet side that couldn’t start to salvage the disastrous Charlie’s Angels. That made it easy to ignore Underwater as a pretty good horror movie that allowed Stewart to create a compelling character in a dopey setting.
Those performances ended a decade of Stewart giving the same kind of perpetually dazed turns that couldn’t make Christina Ricci a star. Seberg brings us right back to Stewart as a reliably dull presence. The same could be said for the screen performances of Seberg, but she was far more vibrant offscreen than Stewart ever allows.
That’s probably the fault of director Benedict Andrews, who stays busy wasting all of his impressive cast. Vince Vaughn is a racist FBI agent who seems to eventually just wander away from the action. Stephen Root isn’t given nearly enough to do as the agent whose client is taking radical chic too far. Zazie Beetz gets the flashiest role as Jamal’s militant wife, although some revisionist history is required to give her the best scenes while compromising her character.
Jack O’Connell is given way too much screen time failing to convince the audience that his composite FBI agent is obsessed with his subject. Andrews isn’t even particularly interested in Seberg. The tagline promises that Our Heroine is an actress, activist, and adversary. All the actress gets to do is write checks before falling apart over a smear campaign where she’s accused of getting pregnant by an American radical instead of the Mexican one that she met on the set of 1970’s Macho Callahan.
Seberg doesn’t care much about how the movie tells a story, either. Pretty much every camera shot is a made-for-TV version of cinematic clichés – which is baffling coming from cinematographer Rachel Morrison, who was coming off shooting Black Panther after managing to turn 2017’s Mudbound into something interesting.
There’s a lot more to say about Seberg than Seberg, of course. The ending tries hard to cheat the audience by running lots of title cards while allowing the actress a final smug smile in 1971. None of those notes mention that the troubled star went on to more lousy life decisions before being found dead in 1979 – with any suspicious circumstances around her suicide probably tied to her bad taste in men.
Seberg would certainly be much stronger if the movie had covered more of the star’s personal problems, or examined her own motivations outside of her love life. We’re lucky that the script briefly notes that the Iowa girl had joined the NAACP at 14 years old. The best possible thing to say about Seberg is that it’s not another film that could be called Sedgwick – but everyone would’ve been better off with a biopic called Shrimpton.