Directed by: Benedict Andrews
Premise: Based on true events. Actress Jane Seberg (Kristen Stewart) supports the Black Panthers and other civil rights groups. Seberg is targeted by FBI agents who seek to humiliate her and derail the actress’ career.
What Works: Seberg is a story about a white woman who got involved in racial politics during the civil rights era and how Jane Seberg’s support of subversive movements put her in the crosshairs of the establishment. This film is distinct from titles like The Help which trivialized the struggle for civil rights or Green Book which characterized racism as a problem exclusive to southern whites. Seberg has more in common with the apartheid drama A Dry White Season as it dramatizes the power of the state to turn an activist’s life upside down. Seberg dramatizes the way the FBI set out to discredit, harass, and destroy people and organizations that the bureau’s leadership deemed a threat to the status quo. The most interesting part of the movie is the subplot of an agent (Jack O’Connell) who gets disillusioned by his assignment to monitor Seberg and the movie might have been stronger if it had focused on him.
What Doesn’t: There are a number of problems with Seberg. Chief among them is the casting of Kristen Stewart in the title role. As portrayed here, the FBI’s surveillance and harassment drove Jane Seberg to paranoia and substance abuse. Stewart never really captures that stress in her performance. She’s always too cool, too in control of herself. Part of the problem is Stewart but it’s also the fault of a film that is dramatically flat. The conflict does not escalate and there is little sense of anything concrete at stake. Seberg never really loses anything as a result of her activism and the FBI’s harassment. Furthermore, the movie suffers from a credibility problem. The reality is that Seberg was a troubled and erratic woman. None of that is evident in the film and the final coda misleadingly implies that Seberg’s death was suspicious while omitting the fact that the star repeatedly attempted suicide throughout the final years of her life. The picture also misses an obvious and interesting angle. Seberg was a wealthy white movie star who used her fortune and fame to get involved in revolutionary politics. There is a moment in which an African American character accuses her of being a tourist. That’s an interesting critique but the film never comments on it further. And that’s indicative of the shallow treatment that characterizes this movie.
Bottom Line: Seberg is well intentioned but the movie is miscast and it has a superficial regard for its subject and for history. It’s not very good drama and it doesn’t say anything substantive about Jane Seberg or government surveillance or the confluence of show business and politics.
Episode: #792 (March 8, 2020)