Catch Me If You Can (2002, Steven Spielberg)



At first glance, Catch Me If You Can is a fairly breezy, even fluffy comedy-thriller with relatively low stakes: a few million in bounced checks, not too far from the coveted jewels in To Catch a Thief, and a fresh-faced high schooler fooling the whole of the banking system plus the FBI. Following the true and fairly accurately rendered story of master forger and eventual financial crimes expert Frank Abagnale, some demented textbook definition of a self-made man, the movie comes across as a sort of vicarious hedonism: portrayed by a confident and slippery Leonardo DiCaprio in what likely remains his most impressive performance, he represents himself as a suave James Bond figure who finds it pathologically easy to weasel his way in and out of tight places. He’s also relentless in a way that would be positively terrifying (think of Ted Bundy’s multiple hazardous escapes and subsequent brutal murders) if his crimes weren’t so essentially frivolous.

That’s kind of the crux: director Steven Spielberg, in a radical change of pace for him after a decade alternating between effects-laden sci-fi and deadly serious prestige films, lets us identify intensely and enjoy our time with this criminal for two reasons. One is that Frank isn’t out to hurt anyone, at least not in any sense that every adolescent or early-twenties male doesn’t already leave a path of emotional destruction. The other is more telling, coming from Spielberg: as much as we may resent his crimes, Frank functions as a vessel for our fantasies. He plays the system, flies to every exotic place, fashions every kind of potential life for himself with constant illegitimate upheaval, and nearly gets away with it. First it’s to get away from his home life and then it’s by necessity, and in the effortless exoticism of his spontaneous actions he’s sort of a hero to us because he embodies our imp of the perverse: his actions reflect our secret heart, the things we want to do but never actually would. Crucially, and without becoming a pawn in some sort of morality play, he also reflects the very reasons we wouldn’t.

James Bond never had this layer or seemed like any of us could almost be him; despite the amoral nature of his activity, Frank is closer to Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest, to which this film clearly owes a great deal. And we see ourselves just as much in the priggish, long-suffering FBI agent given depth and humor in spades by Tom Hanks in one of his more nuanced latter-day parts; working long hours on Christmas, making constant noncommittal allusions to his estranged wife and daughter, playing strictly by the rulebook while the target of his obsession lives the unearned high life, he is the flawed picture of stability and normalcy, and his sharpest contradiction to Frank is that he has accepted his fate and position. Neither status is idealized because neither closes the gap of warmth and connection both men are missing. The not-so-big secret is that Hanks’ Hanratty is desperately lonely, and Frank is almost always terrified — and it’s this that makes Catch Me If You Can, particularly on revisits, not flighty or insignificant at all but actually vital and resonant, with real pain lurking in the majority of its scenes, hidden so that its depth isn’t immediately obvious. It is one of the most mature films its director has made, and one of the most personal.

Slick and sumptuously jet-set ’60s as it may be, Catch Me If You Can isn’t a purely youthful film, despite well-constructed comic setpieces that demonstrate a rare kind of levity for Spielberg, like Jennifer Garner’s cameo as a greedy magazine cover model who talks herself slickly into a classic Abagnale swindle. Overwhelmingly, it’s colorful but oddly solemn. Spielberg’s personality seems divided almost exactly halfway between DiCaprio’s cunning man on the run and Tom Hanks’ uncommonly world-weary fed. This complicated juggling of twin characters and their mirrored anxieties calls to mind 1973’s vibrant The Sugarland Express, the first film Spielberg made about the act of running away. In that film the highway patrolman played by Michael Sacks comes around organically to a sympathy toward the plight of the runaways who’ve kidnapped him (Goldie Hawn and Ben Johnson). The characters Hanks and DiCaprio depict have the same sort of oddly respectful give and take, but the evolution of their relationship is much subtler. From the beginning, Hanratty represents the paternal authority lost early on by Frank; there’s much talk of how the man being chased is “just a kid.” It goes deeper than surrogate parenthood, the burning “where is the father?” posed by so many of Spielberg’s narratives, and into a more generalized sense of loss suffered by the two men. As in all of his best films, the central characters are defined through an astonishingly thorough collection of accumulating details, both built without exposition, solely from their reactions to the worlds around them.

We meet Frank as a teen who clearly idolizes his father, Frank Abagnale Sr., put across brilliantly by Christopher Walken in his best non-comedic role ever; the elder Abagnale projects an image of community pillar. He’s a small business owner, prominent member of the rotary club, and he brought his pretty wife home from a French village at the end of the war. The world Frank sees when he proudly watches his parents dance in the living room is abruptly shattered when the IRS, his mom’s extramarital affairs and his dad’s relentless swindling invade their home, though it’s more likely that these elements were always in place and just weren’t so readily visible to a younger boy. The elder Abagnale even fails to conceal a grin at his son’s first big act of self-righteous deception, when he spontaneously pretends — for an entire week — to be a substitute teacher in a French class. That angrily extemporaneous transformation from bullied new kid to self-proclaimed totalitarian, by the way, is a legitimately empowering moment, and none of his other achievements in the film — from bank fraud to faking out a term as a medical doctor — carry quite the same boisterous impact as that first turning point, but in a weird way it’s nothing more than a kid making his father proud by emulating him. (Personal note: Speaking as someone whose late father was a master liar and ripoff artist whose financial affairs just about wrecked us several times, I feel quite a kinship with Frank in these early scenes, and moreover in his reaction to the inevitable serving of divorce papers. I was roughly the same age as he is when my own parents split, though I was far less conscious of how this would eventually prove a pivotal moment in my life. Nevertheless, the constant fearful running away from problems during the years after is a pretty accurate rendering of how early adulthood felt for me, even though I didn’t commit any serious crimes; perhaps this is one reason this film seems to become increasingly troubling and moving each time I see it.)

Nearly every Spielberg film deals with a broken family, and Catch Me If You Can is surely his best treatment of the matter to date. Its operative, heartbreakingly believable moment is Frank’s initial transition, when mischievous kid becomes runaway criminal, the same amoral reversal as the French substitute stunt writ large and extending with consequences through the rest of his life; it stems from his parents’ divorce, when he’s asked at seventeen to choose between his parents and runs away instead. The feeling of isolation whose depths he’s thrown into is overwhelming enough that he sees no option except to weaponize it. The shot of a terrified DiCaprio running away offers a backward, aged look at the pensive freedom and confusion of Trainspotting or, especially, The 400 Blows. There are other Truffaut connections: Nathalie Baye, so memorable in Day for Night, plays Abagnale’s mother. And when Frank, turning into a low-rent Jackal of sorts, elects to model his life on James Bond, what is it but an update of the staring and dreaming at the poster of Bogart in Breathless, cowritten by Truffaut?

In real life, that was it; Abagnale was permanently on the run. Spielberg and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson take a big liberty here by having Frank meet up with his father a few times after he leaves New York. But the encounters are strange, even surreal; Walken plays Frank’s father preoccupied, solemn and broken, as though he’s embodying a ghost, whose frustrations and remarks all seem to be the cries of despair from a long downward spiral. Others never really seem to take notice of their presence, and even in crowded places they seem always to be alone. Knowing that these scenes are fictional enhances them; they turn Frank Abagnale Sr. into a dream figure, and even in these strange, imaginary encounters, Frank Jr. — always so conspicuously earnest in these moments — cannot extract the emotional stability he desires from his father. The master bullshitter, constantly running away from adulthood and its oppression, constantly in fear and hanging on desperately to the no-strings weightlessness of being a protected kid, seems convinced his parents are just a phone call away from reuniting, and — when the defenses drop — he’s unable to even get his dad, himself still running afoul of the IRS, to tell him blatantly to stop breaking the law.

The longing for stability, a return to watching his parents cut a rug to “Embrace Me,” is the great fact of Frank’s life for the rest of the film. To us it’s so constantly evident that he’s a phony, a child putting on airs. When, while on an amusing jaunt through pretending to be an ER supervisor with the aid of some medical documentaries, he meets and falls in love with a sweet braces-addled hospital receptionist named Brenda (Amy Adams, somewhere far beyond perfect) with tyrannical Lutheran parents, he talks to her in an entirely different tone of voice. He sheds the veneer of power and smugness upon finally meeting someone who feels as displaced and confused as he does, to whom he can shed everything except a youthful, innocent understanding. The entire chunk of the film devoted to their courting — they’re eventually engaged, and he passes the bar and becomes a rather scattered prosecuting attorney working for her dad (Martin Sheen, convincing as a guy whose disappointment you really don’t want to cultivate) until the FBI shows up at a reception party — is strangely affecting, much like Hannay’s brief night in hiding with the farm couple in The 39 Steps; suddenly something grounded and real permeates this weird, dreamlike existence Frank has carved out, and everyone is eventually hurt by it, himself included. As much of a liar as we know him to be, we sense easily that he could live out his existence happily in this place, with this wife and these in-laws. He has a family back, and then he loses it again when the past comes knocking.

Initially, Frank caused upheaval and now he’s a slave to it. His only reference points for the relative peace and normalcy he wants is the dishonesty and philandering he learned from his dad. Like every kid, he learns the impossibility of really returning home, literally or otherwise. The fear of being “found out” suffocates even his most peaceful moments. All of this is clear enough to give the lie to the lazy notion that Catch Me If You Can is just a globe-hopping cotton candy movie. (Adams’ complex, witty and heartfelt exploration of an initially comical character also helps in dispelling the sense that there’s a streak of sexism in the film thanks to its emphasis on acts of supposed betrayal by several female characters. I don’t know that this is really intentional, since you can certainly understand why these women leave and move on, but it does fit into a hollow narrative of men being somehow more dependable and loyal than women.) There’s so much loneliness and loss here, centered yet again when Frank, after learning of his father’s death, shows up at his mother’s window and witnesses firsthand how completely she has moved on with her life, with a new husband and a new child, a new Christmas tree and a new house. Like the rest of the film, this is impeccably staged by Spielberg — his compositions are so consistently intelligent and well-considered it barely merits mentioning; the same for Michael Kahn’s impeccable cutting, which allows the movie to both breathe and retain propulsion despite its generous length — with one last peek out the rear view mirror and a quick, passing glance of his mom standing befuddled at the front door, having just noticed the commotion of the police arriving, the distance between them rapidly expanding. This moment, with a perverse kind of career and normalcy finally on the way, at last permits the hard farewell to childhood Frank so adamantly resisted.

Another way in which Catch Me If You Can seems a more obvious choice for Spielberg than might be automatically suspected is that he is Frank Abagnale. Yes, he is Hanratty as well; Hanks plays the version of Spielberg who regrets that Richard Dreyfuss boards a spaceship and leaves his family behind but knows all too well that there was an unconscious wisdom in his earlier sentiment. But nevertheless, Abagnale is in the director’s young heart; he touches on this in one of the DVD extras by repeating his long-favored anecdote about marching onto the Universal lot in the mid-’60s and planting himself in an office, pretending he belonged there. The problem is, most other accounts of the beginning of Spielberg’s career reveal a far more methodical, savvy approach to making his name and no one except Spielberg himself supports the wild story he now tells. Perhaps he is more Abagnale than he even realizes: he invents his story because it’s more interesting than the painstaking hard work, the refinement of cinematic rhythm, the unwavering devotion. He wants to be the cunning charmer as much as any of us, and that is why Catch Me If You Can becomes so startlingly populist, and quite oddly timed with the economically lax Bush years, almost a Depression-era escapist gangster thriller for our own bizarre time.

But the reason it feels so vivid is its maturity, the awareness of the emptiness cutting through all the romance. Weeks after I first saw the film I found myself remembering and thinking of various episodes in the film’s narrative over and over again and suddenly realizing their depth, and the way the film slyly and responsibly investigated those angles. It’s easy to make a film about a fraud and a phony; it’s harder to make a film about the secret desires and losses we all have, and the fear we all have of being “found out.” This is all a lot of fun to watch — even if taken as a true crime procedural about the forgery world and the investigation of same, it’s ruthlessly entertaining — but it also articulates something haunting, something that has very little to do with fake checks.

[Incorporates a handful of sentences from something I wrote in 2008.]

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