Catch Me If You Can (2002)
(for some sexual content and brief language)
Released: December 25, 2002
Runtime: 141 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Amy Adams, Martin Sheen, Nathalie Baye, James Brolin
Watching Catch Me If You Can again, and appreciating just how different it is from anything that Spielberg had made before (or since), I began to realize the profound shift that may have happened for him after A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.
I’ll get to this movie in a bit. But first, indulge my armchair psychology. What I’m about to lay out here constructs a paradigm of how to think about Spielberg’s entire oeuvre post-Saving Private Ryan.
In Catch Me If You Can, there is a central father/son relationship. It is defined by several things, but at its core the father is pushing the son toward a particular revelation of self-discovery. I think it’s the same revelation that Spielberg came to about himself, as a filmmaker, and that it’s one he’s fully embraced.
Prior to the 21st Century, Spielberg’s career could be divided into two categories:
- First, there was Spielberg’s blockbuster era. It ran from Jaws in 1975 to Jurassic Park in the summer of 1993. Along the way, there were intentional moves toward more serious work, but they were outlier shifts away from his blockbuster bread-and-butter.
- It wasn’t until 1993’s Schindler’s List that Spielberg dove full force into what would dominate his second, shorter phase in the 20th Century: tackling historical events that were either at the soul of his race and religion (Judaism) or at the soul of his country and generation.
Then he made A.I., and everything changed.
I suspect, perhaps, that the sudden death of his friend Stanley Kubrick made a sobering impact, especially in how that death left so much planned work unfinished. So acute was the impact that Spielberg immediately finished one of those projects: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.
Passion drove Spielberg to make A.I., and yet the reaction to that film was disappointing. From lackluster box office to polarized reviews, critics and viewers alike rejected it. It received the kind of criticisms that, in the past, would have affected the choices that Steven made for his future.
But that didn’t happen this time.
The “failure” of A.I. didn’t spook Spielberg. It actually galvanized him. Moving forward, his career would seem to be defined by one guiding principle (even if only subconsciously): he was just going to make films that he really wanted to make, and how he really wanted to make them.
Spielberg was no longer going to be driven by box office calculation. He wasn’t going to hold out for the promise of more “respect” either.
Yes, he’s still Steven Spielberg. He will always try to thrill and move audiences. He will also always try to say important things. That’s who he is.
But now, it seems, that Spielberg will be content even if a particular movie ends up only achieving those ends for himself. If his work isn’t embraced by the masses, or if it’s not respected by critics and honored by Oscar voters then, well, he’s fine with that. Life’s just too damn short.
Catch Me If You Can is the culmination of that shift.
It’s the kind movie that Spielberg never would’ve made for the first twenty years of his career, even if he had the desire to. It didn’t fit into any of the boxes he was trying to fill.
But with A.I., Spielberg set aside those boxes once and for all. If that led to making another 1941 embarrassment, then so be it. (Honestly, it’s rather telling how Spielberg talks about that bomb with affection now.)
This new Spielberg may never give us another classic, but to him that doesn’t matter. He’s done that (and then some). This Spielberg wants to try his hand at doing different things, or at doing old things very differently. (Exhibit A: Minority Report.)
In the case of Catch Me If You Can, a movie inspired by the real-life exploits of Frank Abagnale Jr., it’s a fresh spin on an old thing, but one that becomes an entirely new thing for this Oscar-winning blockbuster legend.
Variations on Hitchcock, Ford, Hawks, Lean, and others marked Spielberg’s entire career. But with his 20th feature film, he finally got around to a 60s-era Billy Wilder comedy with flavors of Blake Edwards. One could easily imagine a young Robert Redford or Warren Beatty as Abagnale paired with Jack Lemmon as Hanratty.
Just as he’d done with other genre auteurs (Ford, Hitchcock, et al), Spielberg took the light and breezy mid-century sophistication of Wilder and Edwards, infused it with sentiment and nostalgia, then grounded it in family-related dysfunctions.
Before he was even 21, Frank Abagnale Jr. had masqueraded as a doctor, lawyer, and airline pilot. He was so successful that, through his playful cons, Abagnale managed to fleece various employers out of millions of dollars.
Spielberg captures Frank’s outlandish lifestyle with vicarious verve. Women, travel, money and parties; it’s a dreamlike fantasy that comes alive in a classy gloss straight out of Madison Avenue.
Catch Me If You Can is a bubbly confection of champagne cinema. It glides along on with blithe elegance. That tone is set right off the top by the best opening titles this side of Saul Bass, set to a John Williams score that channels Henry Mancini and Marvin Hamlisch.
But this isn’t just genre homage. This is Spielberg. Even when he’s having fun, he’s not frivolous (1941 excepted). Beneath the feel-good veneer, Catch Me If You Can is a rich character study three times over.
The focus of this (mostly) true story is on Frank Abagnale Jr., his jet-setting frauds and cons, and what led him to that life. But from that onion, Jeff Nathanson’s script also unpeels the layers of Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken) and FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), and does so with equal depth.
These two older men, each in their own ways, reveal and inform Frank’s motivating psychology. Frank, in return, reveals and informs theirs. It’s an insightful, poignant symbiosis.
For Hanratty, Frank is everything that he isn’t.
Hanratty is straight-laced and honorable, even if he lacks charisma and ingenuity. He plays by the rules but he also struggles to be successful. Frank, by contrast, may be freewheeling and unethical but he succeeds because he’s smart and clever. People want to be around him. As a result, Frank reaps extravagant rewards while the divorced Hanratty toils in loneliness.
And yet it’s telling that neither Frank or Hanratty has a place to call home. Neither has a place with roots. This, er, hits home in an inspired motif that recurs throughout the film: all throughout their years-long cat-and-mouse game, they still end up calling each other on Christmas Eve. They have no one else.
Then there’s the dynamic between Frank Jr. and Frank Sr. Many knee-jerk criticisms pegged it as typical Spielberg “daddy issues,” with the young Frank desperate to gain his father’s approval.
That is a ridiculous oversimplification. Hell, it’s not even objectively accurate.
What’s fascinating about this particular father/son story is how much they both genuinely love each other. They are each other’s biggest fans. They may even be each other’s only true friends. Frank Jr. idolizes his dad, and Frank Sr. is always supportive and encouraging.
But Frank Sr. is, ultimately, a failure. Not for lack of trying, however.
Frank Abagnale, Sr. was an entrepreneur with a knack for charm but not for business. That combination led to sketchy results. He was a con man who actually tried his best to be legit. And even through the failures, Frank Jr. admired his father. He perceived his dad’s liabilities as strengths and virtues.
Perhaps sensing they shared the same tendencies, Frank Jr. organically (even instinctively) gravitated straight to the con. After all, if legit institutions wouldn’t try to work with his dad — a sincere man with faults — then why should he ever want to deal straight with them? To Frank Jr., they were the crooks, not his father.
Yes, there is a desperation towards his father that drives Frank Jr., but he’s desperate to help and reward his dad, not “impress” him or earn his approval. He already had that. What Frank wanted, what drove him, was for his dad to receive his due compensation, for society’s systems and institutions to grant his dad some flexibility and grace. Frank Jr. felt that genuinely from his own heart, not because it was ever something that his dad required of him.
Frank Sr. never questions or scolds his son, even as it becomes apparent that young Frank is working in professions he isn’t remotely qualified for. Instead, Frank Sr. turns a loving-but-blind eye to the obvious. And even as he continues to cheer his son on, he must also reject the generous gifts that his son offers. Frank Sr. refuses these lavish perks with kindness and gratitude, not judgment, because he loves his son but he also doesn’t want to encourage a lifestyle that he can see is making his son unhappy.
And here’s where the movie meets the filmmaker.
Frank Sr. sees why his son is pretends to be other people and live other lives. His son does it all to make his dad’s life better, not his own. He wants to give his dad the life that should’ve been but never was. But Frank Sr. knows it wouldn’t be right to receive that, no matter how well-intended it might be, because it requires his son to be something that he’s not.
Instead, Frank Sr.’s response is to tell his son (in so many words and actions), “Just be yourself.” That’s it. Stop trying to be what others want or expect you to be, or what you think others want or expect you to be. Just be who you are. That’s all. Be happy with that, and stop running. Stop chasing. Stop pretending.
I think that’s the advice that Spielberg finally took for himself.
Make no mistake: Steven Spielberg hasn’t changed.
Spielberg is still the same filmmaker he’s always been. He’s still the showman that wants to wow audiences. He’s still the guy who is emotionally fed when his peers bestow honors upon him.
Spielberg hasn’t changed who he is or what he does. What’s changed is how he reacts to people’s response to what he does.
For Spielberg, it used to matter what people thought. It doesn’t anymore. And for a filmmaker as gifted as he is, that’s an exciting place to be.
It gives us gems like Catch Me If You Can.
- According to the real Frank Abagnale, Jr., 80% of the film is accurate.
- 2002 marked the 4th time that Spielberg released two films in one calendar year: Minority Report in the summer, and Catch Me at Christmas. The previous three, during the same Summer/Christmas seasons:
- Along with Amy Adams, this film had early career cameos from Jennifer Garner and Elizabeth Banks.
- Another cameo: the real Frank Abagnale Jr. The scene where Frank is arrested in France, the real Abagnale is the officer who pins DiCaprio against the police car.
- Long before Spielberg made it, Catch Me If You Can was shopped around Hollywood for decades. It was almost made in the early 1980s, starring Dustin Hoffman.
- Before Spielberg decided to direct, he was a producer for the film. During that time, several directors who were attached during various phases of development; they included Gore Verbinski, David Fincher, and Cameron Crowe. Of the three, Verbinski came the closest, but conflicting schedules on multiple films caused delays. James Gandolfini, who had been cast as to back out as Hanratty, eventually had to back out because of his commitment to The Sopranos.
- Along with DiCaprio, Spielberg strongly considered Johnny Depp for the role of Frank Jr.
- For the scene of Mrs. Abagnale’s re-marriage, the house that is used is the same house for Steve Martin’s Father Of the Bride.
- The film was shot in a quick 52 days; that’s a fast pace for a major motion picture of this size and scale (you’d normally expect a shoot length almost twice that). With a $52 million budget, that effectively came to $1 million a day.
- Once again, Spielberg Oners pop up here:
- In a scene between Frank Jr. and his mother, there’s a Oner that lasts for 1:40; it tracks them through their house.
- There’s another take (about the same length) also at their home, when Frank Jr. walks in to discover his mom has a visitor; it is the man who would become her second husband.
- Late in the film, another Oner occurs in an airport terminal. It’s a scene between Frank and Hanratty, and it is also roughly 1:40 in length.
- There is a scene where Frank Jr. is inspired to become a fake airline pilot. In it, he spots Pan Am pilots and stewardesses getting out of a cab. For this scene, Spielberg created a unique effect: the pilots and stewardesses all move in slow motion while the rest of the city action around them moves at normal speed.