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Movie review: Kristen Stewart gives us a ‘Seberg’ under political siege

Ed Symkus
More Content Now
Herald-Journal

This is not a biopic about the actress Jean Seberg. It’s about a few tumultuous years in her life, set in the late-1960s and early-70s, well after she had been established as a star of the French New Wave (even though she was from Iowa).

Turns out that the events of those few years were far more interesting than most of the films she was in. That’s why her name is probably more familiar than the titles of most of her films. Among those that general audiences might know are her early effort “Breathless,” which put her on the map in 1958, along with two forgettable ones, “Paint Your Wagon” (1969) and “Airport” (1970). It surprised even me to find out that she starred or costarred in 32 other films between 1957 and 1976, three years before she died under mysterious circumstances at the age of 40.

The film opens in 1968, when Seberg (Kristen Stewart) was married to French diplomat Romain Gary (Yvan Attal), and lived with him and their young son in Paris. It was what you might call an “open” marriage, as she was a free spirit, and he was, well, French. A trip to Los Angeles to do a film would put her in contact with some new people that would change her life.

There was turbulence in the air on the West Coast. The Black Panther Party was staging protests against police brutality in Los Angeles and Oakland, and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI was looking into the activities of Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), who they labeled as a radical. And, as presented in the film, Jamal was in the air, on the same L.A.-bound flight as Seberg. There was a ruckus involving him when Malcolm X’s wife was denied a seat in first class. As a witness to the event, Seberg’s initial sympathy toward the Panthers and their ideals was aroused. She would go on to become involved - on many levels - with Jamal, would donate a great deal of money to the cause, and would eventually find herself on the radar of the FBI as a potential radical.

The film tells the story from her side as well as from that of the FBI, through the eyes of one of their top audio specialists - who made clandestine recordings of suspects - Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell), a dedicated and overworked agent whose loyalty to the job was causing friction between him and his wife Linette (Margaret Qualley). Solomon was also having trouble with his blatantly racist partner Carl Kowalski (Vince Vaughn) and his difficult (and racist) boss Frank Ellroy (Colm Meaney).

Though Solomon’s story is a compelling one, Seberg’s is of more interest, and the film sticks mostly to her non-moviemaking activities and how they negatively affected her and everyone around her. The causes she supports revolve around the Panthers’ educational center, though the FBI only sees - literally - black and white issues and is convinced that she’s aiding the enemy. She’s appreciated by Jamal and most of the people with him, but he warns her that she’s playing with fire. Her husband doesn’t know what to make of her behavior, but she’s convinced that she’s become part of something important.

The circumstances around Seberg lead to the FBI keeping her under constant surveillance, to paranoia edging its way into her everyday life, to erratic behavior, and to the collapse of her acting career. The film turns full-blown melodramatic as Jack Solomon becomes more involved with his work - causing his marriage to crumble - and Seberg becomes more delusional about what is and isn’t happening to her. It’s a troubling portrait of a naïve woman who thought she was doing the right thing, but was in fact losing control of her life due to an out-of-control government agency.

Stewart doesn’t go for an impersonation of Seberg, but gives a strong, focused and daring portrayal of someone who even today remains misunderstood. Stick around for the end credits, which feature a soulful, heartbreaking version of Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” by Nina Simone.

Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.

“Seberg”

Written by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse; directed by Benedict Andrews

With Kristen Stewart, Jack O’Connell, Anthony Mackie, Vince Vaughn, Margaret Qualley

Rated R