Hollywood has been churning out biopics since film’s earliest days. As soon as someone figured out how to capture the “motion picture” and tell stories using a visual platform, writers began looking to some of history’s most well-known figures to immortalize. The first decade of motion pictures featured movies about Peter the Great, Ludwig van Beethoven and Ned Kelly. However, the very first biopic, from 1899, was about Joan of Arc.
Joan of Arc—that simple peasant girl who stood up for what she believed in and was ultimately destroyed for it. There are marked similarities between her and Jean Seberg, an actress from the French New Wave, who also is the focus of the new biopic “Seberg.”
Jean Seberg (Kristen Stewart) is a fiercely independent ingenue who came from the cornfields of Iowa to Hollywood to become a star. It’s a dream she fulfills at a young age. Most of her success was in France, where filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard helped propel her to stardom in movies such as “Breathless.” Coincidentally, Seberg’s first movie was 1957’s “Saint Joan,” another Joan of Arc biopic.
Jean decides to leave Paris and head back to Hollywood to transition from smaller French films to larger studio projects. In transit she meets a passionate and charming member of the Black Panthers named Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie). Their chemistry is instantaneous. They begin an affair, which extends beyond the bedroom as Jean begins to publicly and unapologetically back the Black Panthers and their ideologies. This doesn’t sit well with a number of people, including Hakim’s wife, Jean’s husband and the Federal Bureau of Investigations.
Seberg is now in the crosshairs of a dastardly and disconcerting effort from the U.S. government to spy on and help discredit anyone who the FBI considers “un-American.” Clean-cut FBI agent Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell) must surveil Seberg to chronicle every dirty little secret the young starlet has. Jack wants to be a patriot and serve his country, but spying on Seberg and participating in a campaign to destroy her weighs on his conscience. One would hope this realization would be more obvious and widespread, and yet there are a great number of federal employees who are pleased as punch to commit psychological warfare on innocent people because of their political affiliations.
Seberg’s life begins to spiral out of control. She’s vilified in the press, her affair is exposed and her name becomes synonymous with tabloid fodder. Jack begins to question the depths which his superiors are willing to go, as he watches Seberg circle the drain.
This is one of those biopics that comes off a little too sleight. There is a lot of brutal drama in the true-life elements of the story, often staged with the on-the-nose emotionality of a Lifetime Movie of the Week. Kristen Stewart is really good in the lead role. I’m amazed how interesting of an actress she’s become after a decade of performance purgatory in those awful “Twilight” movies. She picks interesting films and, like Jean Seberg, is far more likely to be in interesting indie films than studio blockbusters.
“Seberg” made me want to learn more about Jean Seberg and the absolutely maddening lengths the U.S. government went to destroy her. This movie is an occasionally interesting melodrama but I think it skipped over some of the darker crevices begging to be explored. This is a pretty coat of paint with interesting brush strokes on a paper-thin canvas.
I didn’t dislike “Seberg.” It got more right than it did wrong. Director Benedict Andrews strings together the multi-layered narrative well enough. The movie reminded me of another biopic from a similar era: the George Reeves-themed “Hollywoodland” with Ben Affleck. Like “Seberg,” it weaves in and out of dramatic coherence. There is a hint of a spark at the center of “Seberg,” but it never catches fire or burns very hot. The end product is more tepid and less salacious than the true life events the film is based on.