“What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s the question many a child is asked by their teachers, parents, and other authority figures in their lives as they grow older. A large part of adolescence is making the decisions that will shape the course of your life. Some kids go to college. Others decide to pursue their passions. And in the case of Frank Abagnale Jr., the protagonist of Steven Spielberg‘s crime caper Catch Me If You Can, sometimes they embark on a jet-setting life of crime. Abagnale, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, managed to impersonate a pilot, a lawyer, and a doctor while forging millions of dollars worth in travelers’ checks – and he pulled it off all before his 19th birthday.
If that sounds too good to be true, you might be surprised. Spielberg and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson drew upon the real-life Abagnale’s autobiography for the film, changing a few details along the way. Abagnale would later speak on this, saying that while the film differed greatly from his book he felt that Spielberg was the right man for the job. “I have to pinch myself every so often to make sure I’m not dreaming it. I am very pleased and if anyone can do justice to this film, it is he,” Abagnale told IGN in an interview prior to the film dropping. He does briefly cameo in the film as a French police officer who stops his screen counterpart from escaping prison. The irony wasn’t lost on me after noticing this.
In fact, the film underwent its own identity crisis during development. The rights bounced from Colombia and Disney to Dreamworks, and Spielberg was only attached as a producer. Gore Verbinski, who would later dazzle Hollywood with the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, was approached to direct. However, DiCaprio’s filming schedule on Gangs of New York caused Verbinski to drop out. Spielberg reached out to Cameron Crowe before deciding to direct himself. Spielberg brings a sense of humor as well as humanity to the film; despite the fact that he’s breaking numerous laws, it’s hard not to feel for Frank.
The film starts to interrogate the very concept of identity in its first scene. Opening on the set of the classic game show To Tell The Truth, three men in pilot’s uniforms walk out and identify themselves as Frank Abagnale Jr. The host even says “for the first time, they’ll have to tell the truth and nothing but the truth.” From there, the plot unravels, including Frank’s cross-country journey and how he managed to stay one step ahead of FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks). But there’s more to Frank’s conman ways than meets the eye.
In flashbacks, more is revealed about Frank’s adolescence and how he turned to a life of crime. He was an ordinary high school student who idolized his father (Christopher Walken) and was doted on by his mother Paula (Nathalie Baye). But Frank Sr. winds up under investigation by the IRS, leading the family to move and Paula to begin an affair with Frank Sr.’s friend Jack Barnes (James Brolin). Eventually, Frank’s parents divorce, sending him spiraling. It’s there that he decides to run away from home and winds up impersonating a pilot, traveling across the country.
It’s in these sequences that Frank’s search for identity begins to take place. On his first day at his new school, he’s mistaken for a dictionary salesman due to his private school uniform. But he turns that to his advantage – pretending to be the substitute teacher and humiliating the bullies that made fun of him. He continues to use these skills to his advantage, winning people over with his charm and picking up tidbits of knowledge from movies. Said movies also provide his cover: he uses James Bond author Ian Fleming and Barry Allen, aka the Flash, as aliases. DiCaprio not only wins over his mark but the audience as well: his boyish charm and slick speaking go hand in hand.
This provides a perfect contrast to Hanks’ performance as Hanratty. Shedding his usual fatherly aura, Hanks plays the FBI agent as a driven yet humorless man, dedicated to his work. Case in point: when his fellow agents ask him if he has a sense of humor, he launches into a knock-knock joke that ends with him telling them to “go f*** themselves.” Yet there’s a reason for Hanratty’s dour attitude; his dedication to his work led to his wife divorcing him and taking their daughter with him. In a way, the two are more alike than they’d care to admit.
That bond is emphasized through a recurring plot motif where Frank calls Hanratty every Christmas Eve, wanting to bury the hatchet. Both men are usually alone; Hanratty in the FBI offices and Frank in one of the many hotels he’s conned his way into. The gulf between them winds up being depicted in more than miles thanks to Spielberg and his trusty cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, with shadows closing in on both men. Finally, Hanratty comes face to face with Frank when he’s holed up in France and manages to convince him to give himself up. DiCaprio and Hanks give it their all, as Hanratty and Frank finally have the chance to be honest with each other.
They aren’t alone. Spielberg assembled one of his best casts for this film, rivaling his other blockbuster efforts including Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jurassic Park. Walken’s utterly magnetic as Frank Sr., and depicts the same sense of duplicity that his son would come to inherit. Other cameos include Ellen Pompeo as a flight attendant, Elizabeth Banks as a bank teller, and Jennifer Garner as a call girl. But the actress who plays the biggest role in the film is Amy Adams.
Adams plays a young nurse named Brenda Strong, who Frank gets close to when he’s impersonating a doctor in Louisiana. Here, his usual tricks begin to falter; Brenda genuinely cares for him, and he finds his match in her father Roger (Martin Sheen, excellent as always.) A good deal of this could be the fact that Brenda and her parents represent what he had before his mother and father split; scenes of him watching the Strongs do the dishes or watch television are laced with a quiet yet poignant status. Adams will break the viewer’s heart, as she constantly seems on the edge of tears and her brace-filled smile is a far cry from the woman who’d anchor films like Arrival and The Master.
In the end, Catch Me If You Can is an underrated gem in Spielberg’s filmography. It has a great hook, a great cast, and a jazzy, catchy score from the great John Williams. Though Spielberg is well renowned for his blockbuster work, this film is a great reminder that he’s one of the more versatile filmmakers working today.