In honor of Steven Speilberg week on the I Hate Critics podcast I’m publishing my original reviews of Steven Speilberg’s more recent canon. Reviews like this one from 2002 of Catch Me if You Can starring Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Less than a week ago, Leonardo DiCaprio entered theaters with Gangs of New York, his first truly adult performance. He returns in his new film portraying a kid again. In Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, DiCaprio is famed teenage con man Frank Abagnale Jr, the youngest man ever to make the FBI’s most wanted list. Though DiCaprio is playing a teenager in this film, it is yet another grown up performance that announces DiCaprio as an actor of great depth.
The true story of Frank Abagnale Jr. is one made for the big screen. Before the age of 19, Abagnale had been an airline pilot, a lawyer, and a doctor. He was also a master check forger. The story is told in flashback as FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) arrives at a French prison to retrieve Abagnale who had served two years in the prison for the same crimes he was charged with in the States. We flashback to young Frank and his picturesque family life. Frank’s father, Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken), and his mother (Natalie Baye) seem to be happy. Unfortunately his father’s business is going under and the IRS is beating down their door. The stress is breaking up the marriage. This leads Frank Jr. to hit the road and begin his life of crime.
Frank writes a series of bad checks before the banks finally cut him off. Then, inspiration strikes in the form of an airplane pilot. Seeing the respect and admiration people showed for airline pilots, Frank sets about becoming a pilot (or at least looking the part.) After conning officials at Pan Am into giving him a uniform and enough background information to be able to talk a good game, Frank sets about being a pilot. Using his uniform and sheer bravado, Frank starts forging checks from Pan Am. The uniform gave him instant credibility and Frank’s ability to charm the female bank tellers meant never even having to produce an ID to have a check cashed in any bank in the country.
With the FBI onto his pilot scheme, Frank settles in Atlanta where a chance encounter with a sweet little nurse named Brenda (Amy Adams) leads Frank to become a doctor. He fakes a degree from Harvard Medical School and watches Dr. Kildare. Suddenly, he’s working the night shift as the head on call doctor in the emergency room. Thankfully, being in charge of a group of doctors means that Frank is never left to tend to a patient. Frank’s relationship with Brenda leads to yet another close call with the feds, and has Frank headed for Europe.
Despite his adept criminal mind and quick wit, Frank is still a kid and still a sloppy criminal and the FBI is quickly on his path. In one amazing encounter, Frank actually comes face to face with the FBI agents on his tail and crafts an amazing lie to make his escape by posing as a secret service agent. The scene relies on a great deal of convenient timing and luck, but then I’m sure the real Frank Abagnale was the beneficiary of convenient timing and luck throughout his criminal run.
Indeed, Frank Abagnale’s story is true. He was the youngest man ever to make the FBI’s infamous most wanted list. He did cash forged checks over a three year span that totaled over 4 million dollars and he did impersonate a doctor an airline pilot, and a lawyer and even for a short time a French teacher in his own high school. His first taste of how to run a good con, he made it a full week as a French substitute without actually speaking any French.
Why did Frank Abagnale do all of this? The likely answer is because he thought he could get a way with it. Spielberg however can’t help tossing in a little pop psychology as a partial explanation. The film posits that the break up of his parents’ marriage and his desire to reunite them by buying their problems away caused Frank to become a criminal. That and his father’s hatred for the government kept Frank on the run. DiCaprio however never communicates a tortured victim, but rather, an excitable teen who lacks a good solid hobby. If there had been extreme sports in Frank’s day, he may have just risked his life on stupid stunts. In place of that, his need for a constant rush leads him to crime. FBI agent Hanratty becomes his unwilling accomplice, providing Frank with the reason to keep running. What fun is being a great con artist or a great anything for that matter, if no one is around to appreciate it?
Spielberg is a preeminent story teller and in Frank Abagnale he has a great story. Unfortunately, Frank is to good a guy for there to be any great drama. The film makes great use of the audience as Frank’s co-conspirators. With his charm and wit, DiCaprio has the audience cheering for him to get away and you can’t help but laugh at the way Frank toys with the people who attempt to deny him. However, the audience never really understands the gravity of his situation. Stealing four million dollars is a serious thing; it’s grand theft. Yet, Frank is so likable and the narrative so forgiving to him one would think it was okay for him to get away.
In many ways, Catch Me If You Can reminded me of a far better film, The Talented Mr. Ripley. Both films are about troubled youth con men. Both guys are loners who are desperate for attention and both draw the sympathy of the audience; however, Ripley is far more dramatic than Abagnale. His longings and crimes add weight to the character that Abagnale lacks. Catch Me If You Can is far more flashy than Ripley is and, for that reason, the drama is lacking. Frank never seems to be in any real danger.
Both DiCaprio and Hanks are strong but Catch Me If You Can still seems weightless. It isn’t a comedy but it’s not nearly dramatic enough to be taken seriously. Yes, this is a true story. But something tells me the real story is a little more dramatic than the featherweight screen version.