VENICE, Italy—The casting of Kristen Stewart, who knows a thing or twenty about character assassination and tabloid prurience, is the coup de maître of Seberg, a new film chronicling the FBI’s smear campaign against the actress Jean Seberg. Both women were plucked from relative obscurity by imperious auteurs, found artistic approbation in France, and were cruelly slut-shamed by the media over wildly-publicized affairs.
Though in Seberg’s case, the stakes were considerably higher.
They can also really hold a close-up, which is where Benedict Andrews’ film opens: on the frightened visage of Seberg/Stewart, as flames engulf her. This is where Seberg’s rags-to-riches tale began—with director Otto Preminger, Hays Code-slayer, choosing the small-town Iowa gal from a pool of 18,000 young women to star as the title character in Saint Joan, a reimagining of the story of Joan of Arc. The fiery scene had a lasting impact on Seberg, leaving her not only with burns on her body but a distrust of Hollywood (Stewart, at age 10, merely burst the blood vessels in her eyes whilst performing take after take of her seizure sequence in Panic Room) and a yearning for something more.
The film then jumps to Paris, 1968. Seberg, a French New Wave icon post-Breathless, has settled there with her husband, the writer Romain Gary, and their young son. Upon her return to the States, she’s presented with a selection of bland studio films by her manager and tells him, rather matter-of-factly: “I want to make a difference.” A chance encounter with Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), a fundraiser/celebrity recruiter for the Black Panther Party, grants her that opportunity. Before you can say “radical chic,” Seberg is donating thousands to the BPP, hosting glitzy fundraisers for BPP leadership at her L.A. mansion, and bedding Jamal, their every quake and moan captured by the FBI’s COINTELPRO surveillance program, in the form of G-Men Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell) and Carl Kowalski (Vince Vaughn).
If you’re not all that familiar with COINTELPRO, it’s no surprise—this country has a rich history of turning a blind eye to its sins. Short for the Counter Intelligence Program, it served as the Bureau’s harassment arm from 1956 to 1971, with Director J. Edgar Hoover siccing it on any person or group deemed “subversive,” from communists and feminists to those in the Black Power movement (most notably civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., whom agents tried to blackmail into committing suicide). Due to her connections to the Black Panther Party, Seberg was one of several celebrities targeted by the program. Federal agents wiretapped her homes and phones; recorded her trysts with Jamal; leaked those recordings to tarnish the pair and damage their relationships; and hung up racist cartoons around Los Angeles titled “Pork Chop Nigger,” depicting Jamal sodomizing Seberg. Finally, they leaked a gossip item alleging a still-married Seberg was pregnant with the child of Black Panther Ray “Masai” Hewitt. The insidious lie made its way into the tabloids and even the pages of Newsweek magazine.
The government’s relentless persecution of Seberg—for the mere “crime” of donating to the Black Panthers—eventually causes the actress to unravel, resulting in suicide attempts and a stillbirth. Stewart expertly captures the mounting psychological toll, this paragon of glamour with the pixie cut reduced to violent paroxysms of paranoia and suspicion. Few actresses can command a close-up like Stewart, whose vulnerability all but bursts through the screen.
It is such a shame, then, that Andrews’ film has chosen to view Seberg’s plight through the eyes of Solomon, a COINTELPRO agent who grows protective of his prey. Solomon—who is a fictional character—provides a counterpoint to Vaughn’s racist, unapologetic Kowalski (a role he was born to play, really) and the other Bureau bigwigs who delight in throwing around the N-word to describe Jamal and the other Black Panthers. The optics are cloudy enough, what with a rich, white Hollywood actress held up as the tragic victim of COINTELPRO—when a studio film or miniseries (Michael B. Jordan as Huey Newton, please) on the actual Black Panthers has yet to be produced—but to then have one of Hoover’s attack dogs serve as the audience’s “noble” stand-in, well, that’s a bridge too far.
Seberg’s body was discovered in the back seat of her car on Sept. 8, 1979, along with a bottle of pills and an apparent suicide note addressed to her son. Six days later, the FBI officially acknowledged their role in upending her life, releasing internal documents detailing their wiretapping and how they planted the pregnancy rumor. “Jean Seberg has been a financial supporter of the BPP and should be neutralized. Her current pregnancy by [redacted] while still married affords an opportunity for such effort,” the FBI documents read. The docs were accompanied by the following written statement from FBI Director William H. Webster: “The days when the F.B.I. used derogatory information to combat advocates of unpopular causes have long since passed. We are out of that business forever.” (Yeah, right.)
Hers is a fascinating and maddening story. If only the film had done it justice.