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“Seberg” deserves better than a bland biopic

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Courtesy of Amazon Studios
2stars
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Anthony Mackie, Margaret Qualley, Jack O’Connell, Zazie Betts, Colm Meaney, Vince Vaughn, Stephen Root
Director: Benedict Andrews
Release Date: Feb. 21, 2020

Let’s start this review with a game, shall we?

When I say “Marilyn,” how many of you know who I’m talking about? OK, how about “Judy?”

So far so good. How about “Seberg?”

No? Nothing? That’s what I feared. For all her merits as an actress and an activist, Jean Seberg doesn’t linger in a lot of memories these days. In America, she’s probably best recognized for such B-movie pablum as “Paint Your Wagon” and “Airport” – not exactly the sort of thing that allows her to be discovered by new generations of film lovers.

Amazon Prime’s new original film “Seberg” attempts to rectify that situation by bringing Seberg back into the public consciousness some 40 years after her death -a noble goal, but one that is only sporadically effective.

Despite the considerable efforts of an excellent cast, “Seberg” stubbornly refuses to come to life – as a biopic, as an insightful political drama, as a thriller or as much of anything.

It is a thrilling true story delivered with all the nuance and grace of a National Enquirer article. Seberg deserves better. So does the audience.

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Courtesy of Amazon Studios

But man, what a story. “Seberg” focuses primarily on the actress’s political activism, which made her one of the targets of the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, which worked to discredit and disrupt such “subversive” groups as Vietnam War protesters, feminist groups and the Black Power movement throughout the 1960s.

As “Seberg” tells it, the actress (played by Kristen Stewart) was noticed by the FBI after an impetuous act of solidarity with civil rights activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie). The organization quickly targeted Seberg, and their surveillance and scare tactics were so excessive that the actress went insane before killing herself in 1979.

In the right hands, this story could be almost Shakespearean, and the actors seem to recognize the inherent drama. Stewart, who can often be a chilly and distant performer, brings a warmth to the role that helps Seberg emerge as a genuinely likable heroine. Mackie gives Jamal a livewire energy that balances Stewart out nicely.

The rest of the cast is something of a mixed bag. Margaret Qualley and Zazie Beetz can’t get a lot out of non-existent supporting characters, but a murderer’s row of great character actors- Vince Vaughn and Colm Meaney as FBI agents, the invaluable Stephen Root as Seberg’s agent- enliven many of the other stock supporting roles.

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Courtesy of Amazon Sudios

Unfortunately, even the best actors are undone by Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse’s script, which breaks the number one rule of screenwriting and does much more telling than showing. “Seberg” is a talky movie, and the film breaks under the weight of the dialogue. A lot is said, but very little happens, and that takes the propulsive energy out of what should be a thrilling story.

Even more frustrating is how the script removes Seberg’s agency from her own story. Rather than letting Seberg drive the plot, events just seem to happen to her. What’s worse, she isn’t even the film’s true protagonist as her story is filtered through the perspective of a male FBI agent played by Jack O’Connell. To spend more time and empathy on the FBI agents than the woman they persecuted is a missed opportunity at best and downright offensive at worst.

The production values are workmanlike and unexceptional – from the cinematography to the costuming to the score. It’s as if director Benedict Andrews found a compelling true story and then decided to call it a day. But not even compelling stories direct themselves, and “Seberg” certainly doesn’t.

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Courtesy of Amazon Studios

“Seberg” (rated R for language, sexual content/nudity and some drug use) certainly has its moments – thanks largely to its cast and its larger than life heroine- but it also feels like a rote paint-by-numbers biopic – the sort of B-grade pablum Seberg herself might have starred in back in the day.

Maybe the real Seberg would have enjoyed this telling of her story more than I did. But I tend to think that she deserved better representation on the big screen – both then and now. Pity she’s never gotten it.

About the author

Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves.  He can be reached at staticandscreen@gmail.com.

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