“Catch Me If You Can” - Stephen Spielberg (2002)

Catch Me If You Can (2002) is a lighthearted dramatic crime film that was “inspired” [1] by the real-life experiences of teenage criminal Frank Abagnale. Abagnale ran away from home and dropped out of high school in order to pursue an errant, criminal path of confidence games and check forging.  The film, which was directed by Stephen Spielberg, features an all-star case that includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, and Martin Sheen, and it was a both a critical success and a hit at the box office.

The film is based on Abagnale’s 1980 autobiographical account of the same name  [2], which may have strayed somewhat from the truth, since Abagnale later admitted that the book was primarily written by his co-author, Stan Redding, who apparently only interviewed Abagnale about four times and saw his task as “just telling a story” rather than writing a biography [3].  Nevertheless, we can assume that much of what is depicted is largely true, and it seems like an extraordinary tale  – a young boy from an upscale New York suburb heads off on his own to assume a number of false identities that lead to his thefts of millions of dollars from victimized institutions.

The narrative is set up as a long-running contest between
  • a naughty, cheeky boy – Frank Abagnale Jr, (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and
  • a stodgy, straight-arrow FBI agent – Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks)
This is the classic confrontation between the impish boy who doesn’t want to grow up and the concerned parents who want to guide the youth into adulthood.  The metaphorical contrast is likely overplayed in this film, and that is both the film’s weakness and probably where its charm lies.

In fact the whole father-son obsession on the part of Frank Junior is apparently a narrative amplification on the part of Spielberg and scriptwriter Jeff Nathanson [1].  In this film Frank Jr. is continually trying to do things to please his father, whom he idolizes.  The fact that Frank Sr. was convicted of tax fraud was not a matter of importance to his son.   What really mattered to him was his father’s romantic nature.  This is well portrayed by Christopher Walken in the role of Frank Sr., who evinces a sincere never-say-die optimism throughout the film.  After his father disappears from his son’s life, FBI agent Hanratty assumes the role of a surrogate father, although with a more modest, down-to-earth perspective than that of Frank Sr.

The film begins with the 15-year-old Frank Jr. living with his parents in a prosperous home.  Soon problems arise when his father runs into trouble with the US Internal Revenue Service, and the family has to move to a modest apartment in another town.  Frank Jr. begins his life of fraud by pretending to be a new substitute teacher at his new high school instead of a student.  When his mother abandons his father to live with another man and files for divorce, the boy runs away from home and begins supporting himself by writing bad checks.  Soon he gets really good at this kind of con game and begins taking in lots of money.

Almost by serendipity, Frank Jr. wanders into other impersonations to earn money.  He manages to fool Pan Am airways into believing that he is an airline pilot and soon forges airline payroll checks worth millions of dollars.  But these kinds of activities have a short lifespan, and Frank Jr. always has to stay on the run.

Meanwhile FBI agent Carl Hanratty is assigned to the boy’s case, and he begins an increasingly obsessive manhunt for the boy shapeshifter.  As Frank Jr. keeps running, he assumes the identity of a medical doctor and then a lawyer. He also takes advantage of his respect-attracting professional identities to seduce women along the way.

How does he do it?  This is what must fascinate viewers.  He is only a boy in his late teens, and he continually manages to fool people that he is ten years older than that and has substantial professional qualifications.  And the women he seduces obviously must be convinced that he is  older and more experienced, too.  The sheer impudence of the boy’s brash actions and the continually precarious circumstances in which he finds himself induce the viewers to pull for his escape every time.

Of course we know that Hanratty and the law will eventually catch up with Frank Jr., and this finally happens (not without one more breathtaking, though temporary, escape, though).  Hanratty tracked Frank down in Europe, where the boy had been wildly writing bad checks in several countries, and he convinces the boy to surrender before he is about to be shot by the French police.

When he is returned to the US, Frank Jr. is duly sentenced to 12 years in prison.  However, with the surrogate dad Hanratty occasionally making visits to him in prison, they discuss forgery techniques, and Hanratty becomes convinced that the boy could be a valuable FBI asset in fraud detection.  So Franks ultimately  gets to serve the rest of his sentence as an FBI worker without pay.  Moreover, at the end of the film, we learn that after his release from prison, Frank became an expert anti-forgery professional and made millions of dollars in fees.  And over the years he continued to be friends with Carl Hanratty.  So to a certain extent we could say that Frank Abagnale Jr. did get away with it.

The film’s ending may offer a feel-good outcome to the viewers, but I would say there are several weaknesses to this story that diminish overall satisfaction.

The main problem is that the film doesn’t provide the means for us to empathize with what Frank Jr. is thinking and planning to do.  We don’t get a chance to get “inside the head” of Frank Jr. and feel what he feels.  Clearly Frank Jr. was smart and continually developing skills along the way, but the film makes it look like he was just stumbling randomly from one situation to another.  That makes it look like everything was just pure luck.  Yes, there was clearly luck involved, but he couldn’t have managed to carry out all his impersonations successfully without some degree of skill-honing and planning.

Another problem is the character of Frank Jr., himself.  He seems to be inordinately selfish and chasing after simple materialistic pleasures, and DiCaprio’s emphatically naughty performance only accentuates that feeling. In this respect it is interesting to compare Frank Jr. with another famous impersonator, Fred Demara [4], whose story was presented in the 1961 film The Great Imposter.  In fact I wonder if Frank Abagnale Jr. saw that film and was inspired by Demara’s amazing deceptions.  There is a difference between Demara and Abagnale, however.  Demara seemed interested in the pure thrill of changing his identity, while Abagnale was just out for the money.  Demara’s stance is more interesting and sparks the imagination more than Abagnale’s.

The father-son relationship is touched on throughout the film, but it is vague and never really developed.  There is one oddly revelatory flashback shot sequence when Frank Jr. early on was living happily at home with his parents and his mother spilled wine on the carpet.  The boy is told to get a cleaning rag, but his father comes up and immediately initiates a romantic dance with his mother as they carelessly step all over the permanently setting carpet stain.  This short sequence symbolizes Frank Sr.’s disregard for practicality and, instead, emphasis on romantic gestures, which evidently left a lasting memory on his son.  There was potential to go further in this regard, and Walken’s performance as the father does draw us in, but the Hanratty-Abagnale relationship ultimately turns out to be only a shadow.

Another drawback is the presentation of women in the film. They are all exclusively shown as avaricious, shallow, and flighty.  You might say this is just a side-effect of the general overacting in the film, which is why the film is often referred to as a comedy.  But even in the context of  the generally exaggerated roles in this film, the men are not shown in such a superficial light as the women. Indeed there is no subtlety to any of the characters.  Although Tom Hanks seems to be trying to do something, his character is intentionally cast as so dull that there is little he has to work with. Only Christopher Walken, as Frank Sr., seems interesting, but his character is never fully developed.

These thoughts lead me back to the idea, as I have remarked elsewhere [5], of seeing Stephen Spielberg more as a civil engineer than as a fashioner of cinematic narratives.  He has the tendency to create lavishly elaborate cinematic environments, inside of which we think interesting and compelling things are likely to happen.  But the narratives he ultimately constructs tend to be superficial, and his endings are often weak and lack dramatic closure.  In the case of Catch Me If You Can, the 140-minute train ride he takes us on doesn’t arrive at the station we might have expected.

  1. "Catch Me If You Can”, Wikipedia, (23 May 2016).
  2. Frank Abagnale and Stan Redding Catch Me If You Can, Grossset & Dunlap (1980).
  3. “Frank Abagnale”, Wikipedia, (21 May 2016).
  4. “Ferdinand Waldo Demara”, Wikipedia, (5 May 2016).
  5. See for example:

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