Jane Fonda is getting arrested every Friday for the rest of the year protesting the lack of action on climate change. She’s 81.
Although there are a handful of celebrities today who use their status and fame to bring attention to the causes they care about, Fonda reminds us of the decade when activism was a more urgent calling for famous people. In the sixties, the fight for civil rights and the Vietnam War prompted several prominent people to step outside their comfort zone and speak out about what they perceived to be injustices and harmful policies. Fonda was front and center back then, too, perhaps the most famous celebrity activist, then and now.
While Fonda was by far the most famous face of the sixties protest culture, there were other celebrities who made an impact, including Harry Belafonte, Muhammad Ali and Marlon Brando. And there was Jean Seberg, the American actress who became the icon of the French New Wave after starring in the famous Jean-Luc Godard film, Breathless (1960), who became the most tragic face of ‘60s celebrity activism and whose story is told in the new movie Seberg, directed by Benedict Andrews and starring Kristen Stewart.
Jean Seberg’s story is one worthy of telling. After having risen to international acclaim at 22 by starring in perhaps the most iconic French film of all time, she returned to the States and gained a new form of fame when she decided to publicly support the Black Panther Party. This prompted surveillance by the Hoover-era FBI, who deemed her a threat to national security. The FBI’s intrusion into her life affected not only her career, but her mental health, as she spiraled and died under mysterious circumstances at 40. It’s a tragic story and one with potential for layers and nuance. Unfortunately, Seberg, written by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse, goes in a direction that not only feels like a simplistic reduction of Seberg’s life, but an insulting one at that.
While Stewart does a yeoman’s job with the performance, there’s not much more she can do with what’s on paper. Seberg is portrayed as a bored, lost soul whose motivations for getting involved are unclear. While all of this may be true, when you need an audience to connect with a character, there needs to be an understanding of some kind as to who this person is. There is none of that here, instead, Jean Seberg is portrayed as exactly the image the world had of her: naïve and manipulated.
To make matters worse, Seberg doesn’t even make the film solely about her. Over half of the movie is dedicated instead to the FBI agents who are assigned to surveilling her. Imagine every stereotype you can about FBI agents and you’ve got them here. From Jack O’Connell’s Captain America All-American perfect agent with a conscience to Vince Vaughn’s smarmy break-the-rules and doesn’t care villain, they’re all here, even throwing in a gratuitous scene that has no other point than to make the audience feel even more sorry for Jean and hate the mean FBI men. While the FBI surveillance is a key part of Jean Seberg’s story, this film not only makes it the most important part, but we spend half the movie getting to know the FBI agents when we really only care about Jean. Trust me, when you have Kristen Stewart in a movie, the last thing you want to do is spend time with Vince Vaughn, especially when he’s doing his “I’m a real jerk” schtick.
Because so much time in this film is dedicated to the FBI story, we don’t get to spend enough time with Jean and we, sadly, don’t end up getting to know her much at all. Stewart is really good but doesn’t have much to work with. There are strong supporting performances from Zazie Beetz, Anthony Mackie and Margaret Qualley (have a year, girl!), but far too much is taken away from our time with Jean, so our understanding of who she was and what motivated her is never established.
The costumes are great and Andrews’s direction, Rachel Morrison’s cinematography and Jed Kurzel’s score all create a tone and vibe in the movie that makes you almost feel like you’re in the New Wave. The ‘60s are alive and well and beautifully created and shot, there are truly no complaints there.
But Seberg suffers from a lack of attention to its subject. When you have Kristen Stewart playing a famously contradictory and motivationally elusive character, you really shouldn’t put her in the background and make her wallpaper to your silly FBI story. Kristen Stewart deserved a better script and Jean Seberg deserved a better telling of her story. Maybe Jane Fonda can protest that next.