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Tuesday, 16 June 2009 13:36

William Olsson, An American Affair

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Author Philip Sheridan reviews the film "inspired by" the Mary Meyer story and directed by William Olsson.


They finally made a movie about Mary Meyer. And it was directed by a Swede. William Olsson directed An American Affair, which is his first feature. His first problem may have been agreeing to film this script. And I hope his unfamiliarity with American history was the reason it turned out as it did. Because although Olsson's direction is nothing to write home about, the real problem is the screenplay by Alex Metcalf.

This is one of those films that is not "based upon" a true story, but is "inspired by" actual characters and events. So although the main character is Mary Meyer, her name in the film is Catherine Caswell. (Get it? MM becomes CC.) Her estranged husband Cord Meyer also appears, except his first name is Graham. James Angleton is titled Lucian Carver. They didn't have much of a choice with President Kennedy, so his name is the same.

But the odd thing about the script is that none of these people features as the real main character. The protagonist—Adam Stafford—is a boy in what appears to be about the ninth grade. The film begins with him and it ends with him. The Meyer story is largely told through his eyes. And this is a problem I had with the film. Everything outside the Meyer story, and even a lot within the Meyer/Stafford story, seemed to me to be pretty much banal. It was essentially the teen Coming of Age Tale. And his coming of age is hurried along and impacted by his affection for and experience with the older woman across the way. This concept was not new in the film Summer of '42. And that picture is nearly four decades old now. And like that film, when all is said and done, this picture does not really comment on the time frame it is based in. It more or less exploits it.

Adam Stafford attends a co-ed Catholic school in the northeast. (Although I think the setting is supposed to be Pennsylvania, the actual shooting of the film took place in Baltimore.) After the story establishes some of the trite tumult a boy his age goes through—fights in school, Playboy masturbation fantasies—Catherine/Mary moves in across the street. Adam gazes at her sitting in her window one night, and becomes infatuated by her. She has just become estranged from her husband, and is living alone. So, as a way to get close to her, Adam volunteers to do some chores for her in her new house. She accepts and his parents do not find out about it until afterward. When they find out, they try to discourage him from working for her. Why? Since Dad is a journalist, they know something about her oddities. But Adam persists.

It is through this rather thinly caused association that Metcalf brings in the controversial and hotly disputed details of the Meyer/Kennedy/Angleton tale. (Jim DiEugenio has done a lot of work on his subject. For his most recent take on those details, see his essay elsewhere on the site.) In the Metcalf rendition, Meyer is separated from Cord at the start. At the time we encounter her, the affair with Kennedy is taking place. Yet Cord/Graham is trying to win her back. Mary is an artist who also has other lovers and pot parties at her place. To spice up the plot, Adam accidentally happens to be present during both encounters. One reason Cord/Graham seems to want to get back with Mary is because he understands the diary she is keeping makes the man he works with Carver/Angleton suspicious of her. Why? Because the hint is clear that Carver is in on something having to do with Kennedy's upcoming murder. In fact, in one of the most strained scenes in the film, Stafford sees Carver and Graham meeting in public with a Cuban named Valle—clearly meant to suggest David Ferrie's friend and colleague Eladio Del Valle.

To tie the story together, Stafford's father is a journalist who is on assignment to Dallas, Texas in November of 1963. And, of course, Carver knows this in advance. Catherine senses something is about to happen and she tries to call and visit the White House to warn JFK. But he will not accept her calls or let her on the grounds. After the assassination, Adam steals the diary from Catherine. Catherine tries to get it back. But just as Adam has arranged to return it, Carver/Angleton visits Adam's home and gets it from his parents. Adam finds out about this too late. He runs to Catherine's house and finds Carver reading the diary in front of Catherine's fireplace. He asks her where Catherine is. Carver says he thought she was meeting him. He runs to their meeting place and finds her dead body at the bottom of a long outdoor stairway. He pushes back her hair and sees what appears to be a bullet hole.

The coda of the film is Adam receiving a posthumous package from Catherine in the mail. He and his parents open up the box. It is a four-panel painting of Adam.

To say that Metcalf has taken some liberties with the story is putting it mildly. And a lot of the liberties he takes strain credulity. The idea that a behind the scenes CIA general like Carver would meet with someone like Del Valle in public, and then allow himself to be seen, is hard to swallow. When Catherine goes to Stafford's house and tells his mother that the boy has something of hers, why does the mother not ask what it is? Why does Mary not tell his Mom to get it for her? The scene where Meyer throws a drink in Carver's face after he makes a comment about her dead son is not set up enough to explain her motivation. Would Kennedy actually pull up in a presidential limo with Secret Service escort to see Mary at night in a heavily residential area? And smart aleck Metcalf had to throw in that fatuous fairy tale about Kennedy's famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech being a mistranslation for a donut. For a thorough debunking of this urban legend, see this essay.

Besides the hackneyed story elements, another reason the film never really becomes synoptic of its time is because of that ending I just described. Finishing as it does, the story becomes more about the relationship between Adam and Catherine than any of the historical elements in the picture. And also, that historical aspect leaves us with a question. If Carver/Angleton got the diary from Adam's parents, why did he have Catherine killed? Which is what the film implies.

Olsson has directed the film adequately in all aspects. Which means its rather commonplace in that regard. With the exception of Mark Pellegrino—who tries for the heartbreak of an estranged husband who still loves his wife—the acting is what I would call representational. That is, the cast looks like the people they are supposed to be, and they don't make any blatant false moves. Which is OK for the Norman Rockwell type parents of Adam. But it's not OK for someone acting the role of Catherine/Meyer and especially Tarver/Angleton. In those roles, the audience has the right and the assumption to expect some real creative acting. Acting of both skill and intelligence that carves the hearts and minds of the characters. To put it lightly, Gretchen Mol and especially James Rebhorn don't fulfill the expectation. If you can imagine what say, the late Klaus Kinski could have done with the Angleton/Tarver role, you can see how pallid Rebhorn is.

But alas, Kinski was an artist. Which is what none of the principals in this disappointment are. At least not yet.

Last modified on Wednesday, 30 November 2016 22:06
Philip Sheridan

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