Never mind that she had shown signs of mental instability well before the FBI took an interest, even as early as 1959, after the breakdown of her first marriage. That mid-western freshness and vulnerability were not fake: she really was vulnerable, long before the G-men stuck a microphone under her bed.
Australian director Benedict Andrews, renowned for his theatre work, has every right to limit the film’s scope to the troubled FBI years. This gives Kristen Stewart a focus for her performance. She attacks the role with verve, taking us from Seberg’s return to the US in 1968 to film Paint Your Wagon, through to her comprehensive breakdown in the early ’70s.
Stewart plays her without impersonation, hoping that her commitment will carry us through. It does, almost. Stewart is passionately engaged with trying to figure her out, but she seems to be on her own. Andrews’ attention is on the film’s surfaces – the gorgeous modernist house she occupies in a Los Angeles canyon, or the series of skimpy negligees in which she wafts through it, a baby doll ingenue who wants to do something “important”.
Anthony Mackie plays Hakim, a handsome black activist she notices on the flight from Paris when he makes a scene about white privilege. On the tarmac at LAX, she walks into a storm of photographers and raises her fist in the Black Power salute, as if she’s had a conversion on the flight (in fact, she had joined the NAACP at the age of 14, back in Iowa, something the film omits).
Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell), newly arrived at the Los Angeles field office of the FBI, is watching through a scope as she does the fist. His vile partner Carl (Vince Vaughan) has to explain who she is. Pretty soon they’re all over her private life, tapping her phones and recording her love-making. The tapes are copied to Washington, where “the director” likes to hear them.
Andrews directs this story with an oddly flat hand, at least in the first half. The dialogue is pedestrian, the scenes listless. The drama ramps up as the FBI investigation becomes more vicious, but by then Andrews has shifted his focus to Solomon, who’s becoming obsessed with the woman he surveilles – like the Stasi agent in The Lives of Others. Solomon can see that what they are doing to this woman is heinous and brutal. He just doesn’t know what to do about it.
Given that this character appears to be largely fictional, I started to wonder why he was necessary. He becomes the conscience of the film, the good man doing bad things, but that dilutes the power of the idea. The FBI did these things and not just to Seberg.
It was institutional corruption that we now know went right to the top – with Hoover giving regular briefings on Seberg to a couple of the president’s men (the same ones who would go down for Watergate a few years later). Why soften that? The film gives only a glimpse of the extent of this supremely nasty and ruthless campaign.
It’s true that the biopic is generally a debased form of cinema, but in this case a little more bio might have made all the difference. It’s an indulgent picture, a performance in search of a vehicle, a feat of set-dressing rather than the engrossing drama Jean Seberg deserved.