Seberg (2019) tells the real life story surrounding young Hollywood star Jean Seberg and her surveillance by the FBI in the 1960s and 70s. Following her public support of (and donations to) the Black Panthers in the early 60s, Seberg was of interest to the FBI owing to her associates who operated within the party’s ranks. The surveillance and harassment of Seberg was so severe that it created a spiral of paranoia, isolation and depression which led to her ultimate suicide in 1979. The character of Jean Seberg is played with a real affinity by the ever-impressive Kristen Stewart. Bringing nothing of the caricature or mimicry which biopics often suffer from, Stewart is, unfortunately for the film, constantly better than the material she has been given.
Owing to the difficult situation that Jean Seberg found herself in during the 1960s, her acting career (certainly in Hollywood) never truly got off the ground. One reason for this is that Seberg had reputations and associations that powerful Hollywood producers heard about her- many falsely created by the FBI- which they didn’t want to get involved with. Seberg is still unquestionably most famous for playing the American character Patricia in Jean-Luc Godard’s French new wave blueprint Breathless (A Bout de Souffle), which came so early in her career.
The film is not a typical biopic in that it doesn’t cover the entirety of its subject’s life. Instead, the film is primarily concerned with the surveillance of Seberg and her relationship with the Black Panthers member Hakim Jamal. This approach can often pay dividends for biopics, as often the lives of the celebrities chosen for such films (such as Ray Charles or Johnny Cash) are too full of real life occurrences that can’t be done justice in the length of a feature film. When a biopic chooses to focus on just one particular strand of a famous person’s life in greater depth, it can make for greater audience investment in that person, as can be seen in the film The Motorcycle Diaries about an early part of Che Guevara’s life.
Unfortunately for Seberg, whilst that focused approach is used, there is still a sense that the audience do not truly get to know the real Jean Seberg. Much is made of the origins of her relationship with Jamal, with the scene between the two practicing lines from an upcoming script amongst the best in the film. However, very little attention is paid to Seberg’s political motivations and the audience would benefit from knowing more about the reasons for her beliefs.
Another area of the film which also had the potential to be explored in greater depth was the motivations of Jack Solomon (the FBI agent who starts to worry about the ethics of the surveillance of Seberg, played by Jack O’Connell). In order for this part of the film to serve a greater purpose the script needed to delve further into the FBI as an institution, and explore the ethical dilemma of security agencies obtaining information.
Ultimately the Jean Seberg story is an important one which deserves to be told. Be that as it may, the way it is handled in this film is somewhat trivialised given the lack of character depth we are afforded. In the second and third acts of the film the actions of FBI agent Solomon are suggested to be of equal importance to the narrative as those of Seberg herself, which is quite baffling given that he is a fictionalised creation. Jean Seberg was a very real person and someone who the film should be more concerned with.