What is it about history that makes a story more sexual or romantic? Watching An American Affair, I was struck by both how hokey the concept of setting a boy's coming-of-age story amidst his neighbor's affair with John F. Kennedy in the days leading up to his assassination, and how the story just wouldn't work without such a premise. I wonder if this is a bad thing; it seems like the characters should be interesting and compelling on their own, with or without the political backdrop. I don't really know, but in any case, it works well enough for most of the film, thanks to a slew of generally second-tier performers who bring their A-game to this low-key drama.
Cameron Bright plays Adam Stafford, a 13-year-old kid whose growing interest in women coincides with awareness of his next-door neighbor, Catherine Caswell (Gretchen Mol). He steals her mail and discovers an item from John F. Kennedy, and proceeds to involve himself in her life, first by offering to work in her backyard as a summer job and later by hiding in her closet as she has sex with strangers and stealing her diary. Things take a turn for the worse, however, when Catherine's CIA ex-husband reappears (Mark Pellegrino), angry at all of the other men interested in his one-time wife.
The main thing standing between the audience and their enjoyment of the movie is their interest or awareness of real world politics at the time the movie was set. While JFK and the time period are inseparable from the story for the sake of the audience's interest, the film isn't about the President, just the idea of him. He's the movie's MacGuffin, motivating the story and characters without being specifically imprortant. During the third act, more and more politics begin to seep into the plot (mainly from James Rebhorn's CIA chief, and to a lesser extent Pellegrino), and not coincidentally, it's where the movie falls apart due to sheer ridiculousness. As long as the movie merely uses JFK to create interest in Adam and Catherine, it's fine. Adam's Catholic school is more interesting, where he flirts with a girl (Laurel Astri) and talks back to his strict nun teachers.
More than anything, An American Affair again raises the question: why isn't Gretchen Mol more famous than she is? She's the backbone of the movie, finding a safe path through the potential melodrama and deftly balancing on it. Catherine is understanding and lightly encouraging of Adam's fantasies about her in a way that avoids being lecherous (although one moment is pretty awkward), and she's got more than a few strong dramatic scenes with Rebhorn and Pellegrino. Having also seen her excellent performance in the underrated Notorious Bettie Page, it's hard to believe she's not getting offered more prestigious roles. Cameron Bright, meanwhile, is more interesting here than he's been in the other roles I've seen him in (Running Scared, Ultraviolet, X-Men: The Last Stand), but his performance could use a little more energy. Noah Wyle is also excellent as Adam's father.
The effectiveness of An American Affair is simple and straightforward: good performances in a reasonably interesting story. Sometimes, there's not much more to it than that. In the case of this film, the story is a ludicrous bit of psuedo-history, and it's better to not overthink it; the third act, again, is a bit of a misfire, with conspiracy theories and shady decisions threaten to derail everything. Nonetheless, viewers with patience and reserved expectations (not to mention fans of Gretchen Mol) will probably find enough to like to make it worth giving An American Affair a spin in the player on a rainy night.
An American Affair wisely decides to stick the eye-catching Gretchen Mol on the cover, wrapped seductively in an American flag. The back cover is considerably less appealing, with cheap fonts and a decidedly soap-opera-ish, Lifetime Movie of the Week look to it. The menus also look pretty cheap, the disc has the same picture of Mol on it, and there is no insert.
Despite the film's lesser-known distributor, the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is solid. Detail is good, I didn't see any digital artifacts or compression problems, and colors are stable. I also feel like this is about as good as the film is meant to look, so for once BD owners can skip holding out.
Dolby Digital 5.1 is surprisingly effective at creating the basic environments the movie takes place in. Schoolyards are filled, classrooms are filled with echo and chatter, and the streets of Washington D.C. bustle with cars and people. Only Spanish subtitles are provided, however.
There's only one extra on the DVD, although SPANISH SUBTITLES (!!!) are listed under the Special Features menu. Three deleted and extended scenes (2:10, 1:28, and 2:23, totaling 6:01) are all that's included here. There's a little more of Gretchen Mol's performance in these corny cut bits, but I doubt anyone will watch these more than once, unless you really love characters going to the dentist.
I liked An American Affair well enough, but I'm not positive that everyone will be as forgiving as me. Since the special features are also light, I'm going to err on the safe side and suggest that you rent it before purchasing.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-Ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.