An assassination-conspiracy drama by way of coming-of-age story, “An American Affair” is the offspring of improbable parents (“JFK” and “Summer of ’42”) and supposes that the Cubans and the CIA were responsible not just for killing a president, but for ruining the illusions of a 13-year-old boy. Yes, it’s tough to keep things like world peace and the Cold War in perspective when a young man’s hormones are at stake, but thankfully, the late President Kennedy is just a plot device: He won’t be found overly distracting by the small audience for this William Sten Olsson-helmed period piece.
“It’s all a game of chess, isn’t it?” asks slinky Kennedy consort and former CIA wife Catherine Caswell (Gretchen Mol), when confronted by the vile machinations of her ex-husband Graham (Mark Pellegrino) and his chain-smoking agency boss, Lucian Carver (James Rebhorn). Such convenient naivete is the engine of “An American Affair,” in which 13-year-old, hormonally challenged Catholic boy Adam Stafford (Cameron Bright) is supposed to be a rube, but could just as well be running the CIA.
When Adam spots his new neighbor, Catherine, naked in her new Georgetown home (has anyone ever written a dissertation on the proximity of beautiful women’s windows and the bedrooms of adolescent boys in contemporary cinema?), it encourages Adam to pursue all new interests — namely, photography, telescopic lenses and gardening.
Despite his supposed teenage reticence, he boldly asks Catherine if she needs any work done, and she sends him to her backyard, where she wants everything uprooted, pots crashed and the dirt overturned. She wants “nothing contained” in her little piece of paradise, which is a big, fat sign to us that she herself feels straitjacketed by her double role as Kennedy’s lover and Carver’s mole.
Adam attends an integrated school in Washington, where Kennedy is a demi-deity and the usual seventh-grade socialization rituals — fistfights, romantic standoffs, teenage viciousness — are all overseen by a nun (Lisa-Lisbeth Finney) who makes a gargoyle at Notre Dame look like Megan Fox. It’s all cliche, which means vaguely true, although the ’60s Catholic-school setting has been done often, and better (see “Doubt”), than scripter Alex Metcalf does it here, although his perspective does hint at the lingering resentments of a parochial-school graduate. Still, an integrated game of spin-the-bottle at a D.C. teen party in 1963? That needs some explaining.
So does Adam. Bright is supposed to be a tabula rasa of sorts, but does that mean he has to be so devoid of personality? His actions don’t make much sense, either: His parents have made clear their feelings about the notorious Catherine — a known commodity in Washington whose marriage, Kennedy liaison and dead child are all the subject of local gossip. But when Catherine says, “Some things are private,” would any love-besotted teenager respond, “Like your son?”
There’s a distinct lack of cohesion between what’s happening onscreen and Dustin O’Halloran’s score, which assigns undue significance to Adam vs. the future of the free world. The Cuban Missile Crisis is a year passed and the assassination is looming, and yet Adam’s pubescent crises are given Wagnerian emphasis. Sure, a kid who can eavesdrop on whispered conversations between CIA agents and anti-Castro Cubans (from 30 feet away) deserves consideration. But like many aspects of “An American Affair,” the music and the lopsided dramatic priorities take the viewer right out of the movie.
Production values are otherwise fine, especially David Insley’s cinematography. But the actors — notably Noah Wyle and Perrey Reeves as Adam’s parents — mostly look uncomfortable, with the exceptions of Rebhorn, whose Carver reeks of nicotine and corruption, and Mol, acquitting herself admirably even though she’s not required to do much besides what she does best, which is look good.