There are two biographical dramas arriving on demand this week that use their subjects’ last names for titles, and of the two “Seberg” is the more conventional and the less inspired. (The other, “Capone,” spins out of control early and often, but in arresting ways.) The sad, enraging tale of movie star Jean Seberg, who was driven to despair and ultimately suicide by an FBI harassment campaign, deserves to be known to a new generation, and here it is with one of that generation’s key performers. Yet under Benedict Andrews’s direction, the film feels studied and scattershot, lacking in focus, force, and energy.
As for Kristen Stewart as Seberg — well, we’ll get to that. “Seberg” opens in 1968 as the actress warily returns to a Hollywood that has burned her figuratively and literally. (She bears scars from when she played Joan of Arc for director Otto Preminger and the flames in the execution scene got too close.) On the plane is Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), a magnetic activist with ties to the Black Panthers. To the horror of her agent (Stephen Root), Jean spontaneously joins Jamal and his group at an airport press conference, raising her hand in a Black Power salute. It’s the kind of thing the FBI would notice if they were watching, and they’re always watching.
Seberg and Jamal become lovers, which doesn’t faze her husband, novelist Romaine Gary (Yvan Attal), because he’s French. Less forgiving are the feds, who have it all on tape and are willing to play it back for Jamal’s wife, Dorothy (Zazie Beets). One of the discordances of “Seberg” is the way both Jean and Hakim are presented as righteously noble in their passion to better the world while also seeming almost childishly naïve — she for believing she wouldn’t be exploited for her cash and connections, he for thinking an affair with a white movie star wouldn’t get him drummed out of the Movement.
The FBI, of course, is happy to use that naivete to bring them both down. A parallel narrative in “Seberg” follows Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell), an idealistic (and fictitious) young agent who’s all for ensnaring Black militants but balks when J. Edgar Hoover (who remains offscreen) directs the illegal Count-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) to start using its wiretaps and “neutralization” techniques on Seberg herself.
Jack’s presented as a progressive FBI agent: He’s happy his wife (Margaret Qualley of “Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood”) is studying to be a doctor rather than a stay-at-home FBI spouse, and he finds himself horrified by the bureau’s heavy-handed tactics and the right-wing machismo of a fellow agent (Vince Vaughn). “Seberg” shows Jack slowly becoming obsessed with the star he’s spying on but, oddly, concludes that this is a good thing.
Not that any of it was at all good for Seberg. After the FBI planted a false story that the father of her unborn child was a Black Panther, the child died shortly after being born and Seberg drifted into (well-founded) paranoia, a blacklisted career, and mental instability. Hoover’s COINTELPRO was exposed in 1971 and condemned by a Senate committee in 1976, but the damage to her and countless others was done. Seberg swallowed pills and died in 1979; Romaine Gary publicly blamed the FBI in a press conference following her death.
The story is diffuse, unfolding with a large cast of characters over many years, and the script, by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse (“The Aftermath,” “Race”) has trouble keeping the momentum going after the early scenes with Mackie. A larger issue is Stewart as Seberg — the actress doesn’t give a bad performance, just one that seems fundamentally miscast. It’s always jarring when one well-known performer portrays another, earlier star: The clash of personas, one laid atop the other, can create a kind of psychological moire pattern that, at best, makes for more convincing art than truth. (Think of Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe, or Cate Blanchett as Kate Hepburn.)
In films like “Bonjour Tristesse” (1958), “Lilith” (1964), and Jean-Luc Godard’s iconic “Breathless” (1960), Jean Seberg had an ardent, Midwestern directness that precluded irony, but ironic distance seems baked into Stewart’s bones — even when she’s playing sincere (and doing it well), you sense a watchful reserve that’s the very opposite of naive. Stewart gets the look of the woman she’s playing — the stylish blonde pixie cut that proved so influential — but she’s a naturally guarded performer. Seberg’s tragedy was that she was so unguarded about who was watching her, and why, until it was much too late. She was hardly alone.
Directed by Benedict Andrews. Written by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse. Starring Kristen Stewart, Anthony Mackie, Jack O’Connell, Margaret Qualley, Vince Vaughn. Available for rental on cable systems and streaming-video platforms. 102 minutes. R (language, sexual content/nudity, some drug use)