Jack O’Connell and Kristen Stewart (photo) in Seberg (Photo: Amazon)
★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Benedict Andrews
STARS Kristen Stewart, Jack O’Connell
They say misery loves company, so here comes Seberg to join Judy in paying tribute to the lamentable final days of a beloved screen icon.
Judy, for which Renée Zellweger recently earned a dubious Best Actress Academy Award, follows Judy Garland long after her A-list Hollywood years, instead focusing on the final phase when she was a tormented alcoholic whose unpredictability kept the producers of her London stage shows on perpetual edge. The movie ends with text informing us that she died of an accidental prescription drug overdose at the age of 47.
Likewise, Seberg, with Kristen Stewart doing just fine as American actress and French New Wave icon Jean Seberg, brushes past the career high point of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (a landmark movie so influential that even the Criterion copy reads, “There was before Breathless, and there was after Breathless”) and instead centers on the final stretch, when her support of the Black Panther Movement led to her ceaseless harassment by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. The movie ends with text informing us that she died of an apparent suicide at the age of 40.
“There’s a war against black people in America. You just got caught in the crossfire,” states Panther activist and Seberg lover Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie). That’s largely true, but not the complete truth. Although the Hollywood blacklist had ended a few years earlier and Joseph McCarthy had been dead for over a decade, the House Un-American Activities Committee was still around (if just barely), former HUAC member Richard Nixon was U.S. President, and the tyrannical Hoover was using his governmental position to discredit those with opposing views, to instigate actions beyond his authority, and to spread lies with reckless abandon (hmm, sound like anybody we know today?). The right-wing thugs at the FBI routinely focused on celebrities espousing liberal views (e.g. Jane Fonda, Charlie Chaplin), so Seberg might eventually have been caught in the agency’s net anyway.
Still, it was Seberg’s relationship with Jamal and her concern for the welfare of African-Americans that most incensed Hoover, a man so racist that he was known to shield KKK members from prosecution (I’m sure at some point he also called them “very fine people”). The FBI did a thorough job of spreading falsehoods to discredit her, and one of these lies — that her pregnancy was the result of her interracial tryst with Jamal — took such a toll on her nerves that the baby was born prematurely and died two days later.
Seberg is an American horror story about being on the right side of history but at the absolutely wrong time, and it works within that context. But as a piece on Seberg herself, it remains superficial, with its biggest drawback being that it provides a co-starring role for Jack O’Connell as Jack Solomon. And who, you may ask, is Jack Solomon? Exactly. He’s a fictional character made up for this screen interpretation, an FBI agent who initially goes hard after Seberg but softens up once he witnesses her brutal treatment by his peers (including one played by Vince Vaughn, who, given his abhorrent real-life views, doubtless thought he was playing the film’s hero).
Creating fictional characters (generally to serve as composites of real people) in fact-based movies is nothing new, of course, but the filmmakers usually have the sense to allow the character to remain off to the side, often employed as a Greek chorus. The makers of Seberg have opted to make O’Connell’s Solomon the co-star of this picture, and it’s irritating to see the same weight given to his fictional travails as is given to Seberg’s factual tragedies. It creates an imbalance from which the movie never fully recovers — a breathless story rendered wheezy.