The Jean Seberg biopic, Seberg, avoids a common biopic mistake: it doesn’t try to cover whole decades, instead focusing on a roughly four-year period when Seberg, an actress discovered by Otto Preminger but most famous for starring in films of the French new wave, got involved with civil rights activism and became a target of the FBI’s notorious COINTELPRO investigation. Kristen Stewart stars as Jean Seberg, and besides bearing a passing resemblance to the actress, she puts her vulpine energy to work portraying a restless woman who wants to do more than just act in movies, and who ultimately descends into paranoia and depression as the FBI’s smear campaign results in very public chaos in her life.
Seberg does, however, make a critical cinematic mistake: it shoves a sad white guy into the story because reasons. Said sad white guy is FBI Agent Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell), who has a knack for the sound and recording equipment the FBI uses to spy on people. Jack’s presence in Seberg is weird because the film doesn’t shy away from portraying the other FBI agents as racist overzealous narcs, and there is even a suggestion of J Edgar Hoover’s hypocrisy, prying into the personal lives of citizens he deemed “dangerous to the body politic” while, you know, living a whole ass second life himself, one which his super narc squad would be all too happy to deem “degenerate” and expose to his ruination. So Jack is a real weird insert into the story, because he seems to exist solely to soften the image of the FBI—they weren’t ALL bad!—but Seberg is entirely about the FBI deliberately destroying someone’s life. COINTELPRO was a bad chapter in their history, they can take that one on the chin.
A better foil for Jean is Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), who engineers a meeting with her on a flight to Los Angeles. Jean is sharp enough to understand her appeal lies in her platform and her money, but her desire to help Hakim’s cause is real, and the two quickly become involved publicly and privately. This is how she lands on the FBI’s radar, and the feds don’t hesitate—despite Jack’s token and useless objection—to use their knowledge of the affair to embarrass and defame Jean. A result of their exposure is that Hakim’s community school is closed, depriving his neighborhood of an important resource. (We really need a project focused on COINTELPRO’s systematic dismantling of civil rights and community services, and the long-term damage it did in the African-American community.)
This is why Jack is such a waste of space—Hakim is a real person whose life was also affected by COINTELPRO, and if Jack wasn’t around using up runtime, more story could be devoted to Hakim’s side of the story, and to show how the FBI using Jean Seberg had consequences beyond her own career and life. Perhaps we could also have seen more from Hakim’s wife, Dorothy (Zazie Beetz), who is criminally underused. Margaret Qualley is also underused, but she plays Jack’s wife so she shouldn’t be here, either. The other side of Jean Seberg’s story is not a made-up FBI agent who is like, totally bummed about this whole civilian surveillance thing, it’s Hakim and his family and their community. The focus should have been on them, not fictitious Jack.
Seberg is not a total loss, though. Stewart is really good, as ever, and Michael Wilkinson’s costume design is amazing. Despite seriously miscalculating which characters to focus on, Seberg is a decent portrait of Jean’s time in the crosshairs of COINTELPRO, and how it shattered her life. I wish any one of the filmmakers—writers Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, and director Benedict Andrews—had the sense to ditch Jack, as there is no need to build sympathy for the actual, historically accurate villain of the story. Jack feels like a remnant of the logic that a film needs a white guy protagonist to be viable, but that’s some old sh-t. Besides this is a “Kristen Stewart” movie, they’re selling it on her name, not Jack O’Connell’s. When Seberg is actually about Jean Seberg, it’s pretty good. When it’s about made-up Jack it’s boring and pointless. The end result is an okay movie. It’s not a total loss, but it could have been a lot better without the sad-sack narc.