Two mice fell into a bucket of cream. The first mouse gave up and drowned. The second mouse wouldn’t quit: he struggled so hard, he churned that cream into butter and walked out. Frank William Abagnale, Jr. was that second mouse. As part of a series on Film Sentinel, each week we are revisiting a work from the career of Steven Spielberg. In the first week back after a hiatus, we’ll be looking at one of Spielberg’s more lighthearted films, and one of his most delightful: the 2002 comedy-drama Catch Me if You Can. Lively, personal, and rich with detail, it’s one of Spielberg’s most fun movies.
(For more information on Series Spielberg, a full schedule of reviews, as well as some deeper background on Spielberg’s early life, you can visit the introduction page here).
Catch Me if You Can chronicles the exploits of Frank Abagnale, who, before his 19th birthday, made millions of dollars in schemes; mainly through his impeccable skills of check fraud, while also successfully conning his way into becoming an airline pilot, a doctor and an attorney. He was eventually caught and served five years in prison, and later turned his check fraud skills into a legitimate profession, first by working with the FBI, and then by becoming a security consultant. He told his story in the 1980 book Catch Me if You Can co-written by Stan Redding.
After appearing on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Abagnale sold the film rights to his autobiography to producers Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin. Over the next couple of decades, the project was passed around to several major studios, eventually making its way to DreamWorks Pictures and Steven Spielberg. Jeff Nathanson was hired to write the script. David Fincher was initially hired to direct, then Gore Verbinski, until Spielberg decided to direct the film. As it was his first movie based on a person still living, Spielberg was highly concerned with accuracy.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as a young Frank Abagnale, who grows up living in New Rochelle, New York. When his parents get a divorce, Frank runs away from home, and begins a life on the run sustained by his increasing abilities with check forgery. He first begins posing as a PanAm pilot to achieve higher status to aid his check schemes, enabling him to fly all over the world as a passenger co-pilot. Meanwhile, FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) begins tracking him, as Frank’s increasingly lofty schemes lead him into becoming a doctor, and then an attorney.
Questions have been raised about the veracity of Abagnale’s tales since the publishing of his autobiography, to which he has admitted to changing names and dates to “protect” those involved, and he’s also described Redding’s portrayal of his life to be sensationalized in order to sell copies. Spielberg, in comparison, cared more about accuracy, and Abagnale has largely supported the film’s depictions, save for liberties here and there. In the end, the broader plot elements are likely based on truth, but you can’t really take anything on its face as factual.
Given this, the film is best taken not as a piece of nonfiction, but as a light and upbeat period drama that brings light to holes in the financial system of the time, while also amusingly highlighting the naivety of the 1960s compared to today. As Frank’s adventures take us all over the globe, the film sweeps along at a brisk pace. Due to the many setting changes that take place in Catch Me if You Can, Spielberg shot the film in a rapid production process in over 140 locations, using an efficient style of shooting that helped lead to the effortlessly watchable end product.
In comparison to the commercial work that Spielberg is mainly known for, Catch Me if You Can is a layered character piece with an impressive attention shown to minor details. From the early scenes, a rich tapestry is woven to demonstrate how Abagnale’s transformation to master manipulator is not only plausible, but makes logical sense. A compelling Christopher Walken plays Frank’s loving father here, who first demonstrated to him how to utilize deception to achieve a desired result at a young age, while then motivating much of his later trajectory.
It’s a relatively early role for DiCaprio, though he had already achieved plenty of fame by this point for films such as Romeo + Juliet and Titanic. While in his late-20s during this time, he still had a youthful-yet mature-looking enough appearance to be convincing as an adolescent with both the confidence and the features to be regularly taken as an adult. As one of the greatest actors of his generation, much of his versatility is on display here, as he imbues Frank with enough of an innocence to demand sympathy, even while living a life of prolific crime.
Starring opposite him is a rather atypical role from Tom Hanks, who as a long-time friend of Spielberg’s, collaborated with him for the first time in 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, and returns to portray for him here the dedicated and unwavering Carl Hanratty. Hanks is known as Hollywood’s everyman, and though Hanratty fits that description, he has a much more stoic and reserved personality type than is usual for Hanks. As the perfect foil to Abagnale’s antics, Carl’s rigid commitment to the work proves him capable of not only stopping, but rehabilitating Frank.
As Catch Me if You Can takes place over a large variety of locations, things move quickly, and Spielberg does a marvelous job at propelling the action. While the sets don’t always strike as being from the late 1960s, they are always rife with meticulous design. Even very brief scenes offer plenty of clues to Abagnale’s way of life. The work is a surfeit of visual flair, mainly using pastel colors. Spielberg teams again with refined cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, and though this is a less serious film, like their previous collaborations, it is shot with a great deal of taste.
From the perspective of being a sample of Spielberg’s larger work, Catch Me if You Can is very notable in that it is one of the most distilled examples of Spielberg’s ongoing exploration with the theme of divorce and familial disintegration. As Spielberg’s parents broke up when he was a teenager after his mother had an affair with his father’s best friend, the situation in Catch Me if You Can mirrors Spielberg’s early life almost to a t. Spielberg could have viewed Frank’s exploits here as allegorical to his own film career, resulting in one of the director’s most personal works.
And perhaps driven by that, the film offers some very powerful material that is dexterously interwoven into its largely lighthearted narrative. The heartfelt bond between father and son is effectively conveyed in the first act, and it is this relationship that serves as the emotional centerpiece of the film. In a sense, everything Frank does is in response to what happens to his father and family, and his way of life is informed by him. One can see why Spielberg would respond to this, as it contributed to one of his most moving, and at the same, fun works of film.
Next week on Series Spielberg we’ll be looking at another lighthearted movie featuring Tom Hanks, 2004’s airport drama The Terminal. It’s available on DVD and Blu-Ray, you can also find it for rental through digital retailers. Give the movie a watch, and I will see you next week.