Catch Me If You Can

English Title: Catch Me If You Can

Country of Origin: USA

Studio: DreamWorks SKG

Director: Steven Spielberg

Producer(s): Steven Spielberg, Walter F. Parkes

Screenplay: Jeff Nathanson

Cinematographer: Janusz Kaminski

Art Director: Sarah Knowles

Editor: Michael Kahn

Runtime: 141 minutes

Genre: Crime Thriller, Comedy, Biography

Starring/Cast: Christopher Walken, Tom Hanks, Leonardo DiCaprio, Nathalie Baye

Year: 2002

Volume: American - Hollywood

Catch Me If You Can is based on the real life story of Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) who, by the age of nineteen, conned millions of dollars through writing bad checks as a Pan Am pilot, doctor, and lawyer. This spree lasted four years in the mid 1960s, and the movie follows his career through his capture, imprisonment and parole as an expert for the F.B.I.  Frank Abagnale, Sr. (Christopher Walken), introduces his teenage son Frank to false identities when he gets the boy to masquerade as his chauffeur on their trip to the bank. But Chase Manhattan Bank is too big to take notice of whether Frank Sr. is being chauffeured or not, and refuses to lend Abagnale money. Abagnale Sr. loses his store. Subsequently, Frank Jr. catches his mother (Nathalie Baye) in adultery. He runs away and starts living by posing as an airline pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer, passing bad checks and impressing girls. Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) is the FBI man who pursues him relentlessly and finally brings him to justice. The movie ends with the only successful relationship being the one between the policeman and the con artist as Hanratty solicits advice from Frank on how to catch other frauds.  

This is the innocent world as we now like to imagine it in the 1960s, particularly before the 1963 Kennedy assassination. Several filmmakers have gone back to this era to examine it as a turning point in American culture. The immediate context for Catch Me was the release of the previous year: Ocean’s Eleven (Soderbergh, 2001). Both movies examined the masculine construction of a ‘cool’ style. Ocean’s Eleven did so with the flare of con men who were at ease with their code of honor, but Catch Me placed the cool in quotes as Frank Jr. could not redeem his broken home even as he got away with larceny. A critical scene is when he is still on the loose and surprisingly places a call to Hanratty at the FBI. Hanratty soon deduces that Frank was calling not out of bravado but out of loneliness. His coolness was only a teen’s desperate attempt to compensate for the barrenness of life in America.
A more distant context was The Sugarland Express (1974); the previous Spielberg movie based on a true event from the 1960s. The first movie also involved an extended police chase, across rural Texas. Both show a world about to change. The Texas movie was on the cusp of the MacDonald’s and Wal-Mart era. Neither future icons of the American landscape existed yet but the main characters were already living as if they did, by never getting out of the car. They force food stands to serve them and they collect toys, trading stamps and mail order catalogues all through the car windows as they drive by the small towns.  
In Catch Me there is a similar sense of being on the cusp; the sexual revolution had already begun, and even as a virgin, Frank is not timid about seduction, quickly going further afterwards.  But the most important revolutionary wave of which Frank was riding the crest, is the lost of mutual trust, the final shaking off of community that had been forged by winning the war. The Abagnale divorce was both a sexual betrayal and the loss of a wartime bride. Hanratty was also divorced and there was a hint of that same broken trust. Frank Jr. decides to rely on his fiancé even though he could not bring himself to disclose his own secrets. He discovers that she breaks that trust: Even the French police break their agreement with Hanratty, and, of course the spree of false identities.
Catch Me was advertised as a light-hearted film but critics discovered that Spielberg had not delivered as promised. He rarely staged scenes that allowed the audience to revel in Abagnale’s bravado, and DiCaprio played his character without self-congratulation which therefore invited audience pity rather than delight in his ability to get away with it. Both he and Spielberg decided that the audience no longer accepted lightness. Their seriousness was a success and attracted a bigger audience overseas than in the United States (53 versus 47 per cent).
 Spielberg’s earlier film had featured people trapped in their car and now in 2002 Spielberg and DiCaprio collaborated on a portrayal of a conning teenager trapped without the ability to form human connections. The two films amount to consecutive indictments of the American society that emerged in that time period, which was increasingly promising people that appearance was better than substance. It was no wonder that a boy turned to cut and paste fake checks to finance a spree. DiCaprio returned to some of these period problems in Revolutionary Road (2008) and the influence of Catch Me can be seen in the critically acclaimed television show Mad Men (2007-2010).

Author of this review: Frederick Wasser