What if a boy's coming of age included a relationship with a woman in her 30s, a free spirit who paints and who numbers the President of the United States among her lovers? In Washington, D.C., in the fall of 1963, junior-high student Adam Stafford becomes obsessed with his new neighbor, Catherine Caswell. He steams open her mail, reads her diary, peers into her windows, and hides in her closet. CIA agents notice him; he sees them meet with her and with an anti-Castro Cuban. She hires Adam to work in her garden, and they become friends of sorts. Is theirs an American affair? Written by
Written by Alex Metcalf and directed by William Olsson, "An American Affair" at least earns points for originality. For what starts out as a fairly conventional coming-of-age tale set in 1963 Washington D.C. suddenly turns into a piece of historical fiction when the obligatory older woman 13-year-old Adam Stafford (Cameron Bright) falls madly in love with turns out to be none other than the mistress of President John F. Kennedy himself. Thus, not only is Adam introduced to the wonderful world of raging hormones but to the sociopolitical issues of the day as well.
Adam is the son of two journalists who have no clue their child has been peeping into the home across the way, enjoying a full-court view of Catherine Caswell (nicely played by Gretchen Mol), a glamorous divorcée and ex-CIA agent guaranteed to get any healthy young American lad's juices flowing. When Adam introduces himself to her, Catherine hires him on as a gardener, a setup that gives the youngster plenty of opportunity to not only make his move on this prospective conquest but, thanks to her uniquely complicated social life, to have a special behind-the-scenes glimpse into a bit of juicy, albeit undocumented, political history.
"An American Affair" throws so many disparate elements into the mix - May/December romance (or maybe more like February/August), lurid political melodrama, adolescent wish-fulfillment, cloak-and-dagger espionage, conspiracy-theory speculation - that it can't help but generate a certain fascination, even when the story itself is not all that convincing or the passion for the subject not everything it could be (this applies mainly to the first half).
All the "Summer of '42" stuff is, ultimately, far less compelling than the political details of the period, steeped as they are in Kennedy-era glamour and paranoia, with larger-than-life figures acting out a torrid little soap opera in the foreground, while shadowy figures (mainly Cubans and CIA agents) skulk around in the background. The scenes surrounding the assassination are treated with subtlety and restraint, making them all the more heartbreaking and poignant for those in the audience who lived through the experience. In fact, the whole last half hour of the film achieves a haunting sadness that finally penetrates to the very marrow of one's bones.
The movie certainly won't solve the puzzle as to "Who killed JFK?," but it has some fun trying to piece it all together.
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