Why don’t we talk more about what happened to Jean Seberg? A stylish It Girl bouncing between America and Paris, the actress became one of French New Wave’s most indelible heroines in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 film Breathless—ironic considering she was an American—though her career as a serious actress plummeted just as it seemed to be taking off. The reason is that she was being viciously investigated by the FBI for financially supporting the Black Panthers.
The story of the FBI’s investigation of Seberg—which included wire-tapping her home, surveilling her as she traveled, and publishing a false news report that incorrectly reported a Black Panther party member was the father of her child—is the focus of Seberg, a film starring Kristen Stewart as the actress and activist. It’s an outrageous and overdue story to tackle, especially as Hollywood is still reeling from a flood of recent stories detailing deception and violence within the film industry. A Seberg biopic had actually been in the works for years to no fruition, with Jodie Foster and Winona Ryder each attached to star at different stages of the project. But Seberg drops the ball, approaching the actress’s story and harassment at the hands of the government with surprising cowardice, taking an unfounded “both sides” stance in portraying the FBI investigation.
The film meets Seberg in the early 1960s, as she flips through boring scripts in her glass coffin of a Hollywood home, pining for a greater purpose. So when she encounters Black Power activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie) on a flight, Seberg decides to aid the movement. She begins a brief relationship with Jamal and writes several checks for thousands of dollars to the Panthers. This leads the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, then targeting the civil rights movement along with any other groups they deemed “subversive,” to follow Seberg.
Stewart plays Seberg charmingly as a naïve, youthful actress who grows increasingly shaky in her paranoia. She talks of hearing “little clicks on the line” that follow her and demands that unknown faces on movie sets be banished out of fear that they’re an FBI plant. Stewart keeps finding herself in movies that sound brilliant on paper: a Lizzie Borden thriller opposite Chloë Sevigny, a JT LeRoy movie, a Charlie’s Angels remake—which all end up limp, critically panned, and underseen through no fault of her own. The same may happen with Seberg, not because Stewart isn’t great in it, but because the movie doesn’t seem to realize she is the only great thing about it.
It’s not clear why the FBI considered Seberg such a dramatic threat, other than the organization disliked her sex life and the fact that a famous white woman was hanging out with black radicals. G.C. Moore, an FBI official who headed part of the program, repeatedly referred to Seberg as a “promiscuous and sex-perverted white actress,” The Washington Post reported. There are shades of that line of thinking in the largely fictional FBI officials who follow Seberg in the movie, with one complaining about a lack of a “fuck wire” in Seberg’s hotel bedroom because then FBI director J. Edgar Hoover wanted to “hear the bed springs creak.” But Seberg also invents a sense of morality in these men that doesn’t seem to have ever existed in the form of the character Jack Soloman (Jack O’Connell), a young agent who begins to fear the project is spiraling out of control, going so far as to warn Seberg of her followers.
Solomon’s character inexplicably takes up as much screentime as Seberg does, and he’s made up to be a hero who tries to tone down the aggressive investigation. That the movie assigns so much time to this storyline (his family life, his inner turmoil) is bizarre, as this man never existed and the FBI has never fully reckoned with the destruction of Seberg’s life and career. After Seberg read the false news report about her baby in 1970, she attempted to commit suicide and later miscarried. Seberg eventually sued and won for libel, but grew withdrawn, saying she “cracked up” after the baby’s death. It wasn’t until after her mysterious suicide in 1979, her body discovered in the back of her car wrapped in a blanket, that the FBI admitted to planting the item, and the extent of their surveillance only became clear after documents were released following a Freedom of Information request.
Viewers don’t need to see the FBI’s side of Seberg’s story, redeemed through the movie’s artistic license because the organization has already told it and shaped it for decades. In the form of its heroic fictional FBI agent, Seberg invents an apology from the FBI that never existed, and likely never will.