by Ken Bakely
One big problem with Benedict Andrews’s Seberg is that it seems to be about nearly everything except an examination of the life of Jean Seberg. Though Kristen Stewart plays the actress, circa 1970, with the great dedication and spirit that she so often brings to her roles – striving to lift the movie out of monotony and seek an emotional connection – Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse’s script often muddles and meanders through a multi-angled approach to its subject matter, leaving one to wonder what the movie is seeking to achieve in the first place. Centered during the period of Seberg’s life when she become politically and romantically involved with civil rights activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), and thus endured surveillance and smear campaigns at the behest of the FBI’s COINTELPRO, the movie makes the odd choice of framing large portions of the film through the eyes of Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell), one of the FBI agents assigned to Jean’s case. Jack is depicted as incurring doubt and regret at his mission, and the movie goes on to devote a considerable amount of time to examining how this affects his personal and professional life, and the turmoil he faces in having come to the firm conclusion that he is being tasked to do work which he cannot possibly ethically defend.
The problem with this is that there’s essentially far more stock placed in this storyline than the one about the title character, and to very little effect on the overall arc of the narrative, considering that it’s concerning the insertion of a fictional agent in a story based on real events. Seberg’s story approach is misguided from the start, and no single performance (though Stewart especially is good), and no technical effort (though the production design is admirably appointed) can keep the plot from feeling shallow and misbegotten. There are moments when there is something close to a revelation in seeking out what it might have been like to endure the paranoia, scrutiny, and pain that Seberg really was subject to during this time, but the film seemingly isn’t interested in examining her long enough for any meaningful takeaways to be formed. It gets stuck, to put it as simply as possible, logged under its strangely weighted and regularly clumsy storytelling. The movie doesn’t leave us as viewers with any genuine understanding of why it makes these specific choices in telling its story in this way. There is something quietly baffling about the whole pursuit, and there’s never really much of a feeling that we can follow the script as it steers things in the directions it does.
A narrative that takes such a liberty in creating a sympathetic character on the FBI’s side, and then goes insofar as to make him essentially a duelling protagonist, makes two very critical and fateful decisions. First, the scenes which depict Jack’s life are so fixed on him that the film’s attention is almost entirely taken away from Seberg. Secondly, it takes the forces that are seeking to destroy Seberg’s life and moves them in an even more vague and abstract direction – essentially creating a dynamic between the bad guys in the FBI versus the good guys in the FBI. Neither choice is justified or explained, and all it really does is take away that much more time and space from Stewart’s performance. Seberg feels so overpacked in these moments of distraction that it’s hard for Andrews to steer the ship back on course. What are we to learn from these scattershot proceedings? Almost frustratingly, there are just enough uncluttered and clear-eyed moments – when the film is solely fixated on Jean Seberg and the people around her – that keep the movie from feeling like a complete writeoff. But when so much of the rest of the proceedings are marred down by such meandering scripting and plodding direction, the movie takes a distant approach to a real-life story and comes off lacking and unfocused.