An American Affair is an independent film, written by Alex Metcalf and directed by William Olsson, released in US cinemas and on DVD last year. Set in 1963, it depicts a fictional romance between President John F. Kennedy and a mysterious woman, observed by a young boy in the months before Kennedy’s assassination.
Our hero, Adam Stafford (played by Cameron Bright, better known as Alec in Twilight: New Moon) is a 13 year-old Catholic schoolboy living with his middle-class parents in Washington. An attractive young artist, Catherine Caswell (Gretchen Mol) moves into the neighbourhood, and Adam spies her undressing from his window. Hoping to get closer to Catherine, Adam offers to work in her garden.
Gretchen Mol previously played another siren of the post-war era in The Notorious Bettie Page (2005). Her first, semi-nude scene in An American Affair is reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe’s iconic photo shoot with Bert Stern in 1962, taken shortly before her death, a year before this story begins. Monroe was also alleged to have been a lover of John F. Kennedy, and even played a similarly-named character, Claudia Caswell, in All About Eve (1950.)
Blonde, free-spirited and sexy, with a messy love life – it would be easy to assume that Catherine Caswell is a version of Monroe herself. However, the resemblance is only skin-deep. Monroe’s dalliance with Kennedy has long been the subject of gossip, but the truth of the matter is still uncertain.
After further investigation into Kennedy’s many extra-marital affairs, it becomes clear that Catherine Caswell is more closely modelled on another of his mistresses, Mary Pinchot Meyer. Like Catherine, Meyer was an artist and held left-wing views, and her second husband, Cord Meyer, became a CIA agent in 1951. They divorced in 1957.
Catherine Caswell’s ex-husband is also a CIA agent, portrayed in An American Affair by Mark Pellegrino as a jealous, obsessive alcoholic. Some of Meyer’s experiences – such as the death of her son – are alluded to in the film, alongside her rumoured experimentation with mind-altering drugs like LSD and marijuana, which were then still legal in the US. Several of Kennedy’s biographers have claimed that Meyer frequently used these drugs recreationally with Kennedy.
Meyer was smart, liberal and probably one of the few women whom Kennedy treated as an intellectual equal. They met at least thirty times, and their relationship is generally considered to be one of the most significant in Kennedy’s fast-paced life.
The tragedy of Kennedy’s murder and the subsequent downfall of his former girlfriend are shown here in parallel with Adam’s own loss of innocence. The coming-of-age story is a familiar one, and the era of ‘Camelot’ has been covered many times before. This may partly explain the film’s lukewarm reception at the box office, and the rather jaded response of some critics.
However, for those with an interest in this period of history, An American Affair is a minor gem. Gretchen Mol gives a moving, powerful performance as Catherine, and Cameron Bright is likeable as Adam. Although the film may at first appear to be a simple exercise in nostalgia, it is ultimately more complex than one might suppose.
Balancing the political paranoia surrounding Kennedy’s demise is a sense that his ‘Camelot’ was not as picture-perfect as it seemed. In one affecting scene, a nun tells the class that Kennedy, a Catholic, was the greatest president who ever lived. When Adam tells the nun that Kennedy’s renowned ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech was a mistake, she calls him a liar and strikes him with a cane.
While some of the characters, like the CIA agents and Kennedy himself, are a little two-dimensional, there is greater subtlety to be found in the ordinary lives of Adam and his schoolfriends. The burgeoning Civil Rights movement is only briefly referenced, but the students at Adam’s racially integrated school do not conform to the usual stereotypes.
Thoughtful and understated, An American Affair is the kind of modest, low-key drama with a strong female lead that has unfortunately fallen out of favour in recent decades, but is well worth seeing for anyone with an appreciation for a good script, great acting and a more personal take on our history.