In his second feature film, the renowned Australian theater director Benedict Andrews offers up a noir-ish thriller set amidst the late-1960s Hollywood that pulses with modern themes and political intrigue. It weaves together facts and historical incidents into a kind of speculative narrative based on real events in the life of actress Jean Seberg, when her involvement with the Black Power movement leaves her vulnerable to a smear campaign engineered by Hoover’s FBI.
When SEBERG opens, Jean (Kristen Stewart) is already a well-known actress and style icon, but stardom has failed to satisfy her restless, inquisitive side. A life-long supporter of the civil rights movement, Jean is immediately attracted to Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie), a charismatic activist in the Black Power movement, and their relationship quickly shifts from political to romantic. This entanglement, and Jean’s financial support of various civil rights groups, makes her a target of COINTELPRO, a covert FBI surveillance operation aimed at disrupting political organizations.
Recent FBI recruit Jack Solomon (Jack O’Connell), a gifted surveillance specialist with an expertise in sound, joins the L.A. field office and is teamed up with a more senior agent, Carl Kowalski (Vince Vaughn). They wiretap Hakim’s home and Jean’s residences to document the couple’s affair and expose her financial contributions to the movement. Jack becomes her shadow, maintaining round-the-clock surveillance, and is drawn in by Jean’s luminous presence, ultimately testing his loyalty to his young wife (Margaret Qualley).
Realizing that agents are following her, tapping her phones and opening her mail, Jean becomes increasingly unstable. When she gets pregnant while making a film in Mexico, the FBI seizes upon this as a chance to crush her and discredit the movement by seeding scandalous disinformation that rips through Jean’s family and drives a wedge between her and her passions. Horrified by this outcome and shamed by his complicity, Jack embarks on a mission of salvation and redemption that brings him briefly into direct contact with Jean. For him, it’s both a confrontation of his obsession and a moral turning point. For her, it’s confirmation that she has been a victim of a corrupt system and a mirror into the part she has played in her own unraveling.