Catch Me If You Can Review
Read an alternative review by Eamonn McCusker (Region 2 DVD)
Catch Me If You Can tells the true story of Frank Abagnale Jr, one of the most successful fraudsters and confidence tricksters of all time. Running away from home at the age of 16, he used his charm and cunning to spend five years living the life of a jetsetter. Before he was finally caught in 1969, he had cashed $2.5 million worth of forged cheques and had successfully passed as an emergency room doctor, an assistant district attorney and an airline pilot.
On the surface, Steven Spielberg's film of Abagnale's autobiography is a light-hearted caper movie which revels in the fun of being Frank, whose life was an exercise in escapism. Yet look underneath and you'll find a subtle character study which sees the sadness he wanted to escape from and understands that this was something he could never quite do. It's a personal film for the director, who also went through the divorce of his parents and had an unhappy adolescence. While Spielberg escaped into movies, Abagnale turned to crime.
When we first meet Frank, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, he's a bright high school kid who idolises his father (Christopher Walken) and is crushed when the old man is investigated for tax fraud and Frank's mother (Nathalie Baye) leaves him. Unable to cope with watching his family collapse and his father fall to pieces, Frank runs away to New York. He soon discovers he has a talent for forgery and for coming up with brilliant scams. Dressing as an airline pilot to cash counterfeit Pan Am payroll cheques, he is soon using his uniform to con his way into airliners' cockpits and stewardesses' beds. For Frank, the scams are the end and the money is just the means.
His skill with cheques brings him to the attention of FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), a divorced workaholic who specialises in bank fraud and is impressed with Frank's ingenuity. Hanratty follows his trail and pursues him around the country, coming close to nailing him on several occasions, most embarassingly when Frank makes a narrow escape by convincing Hanratty he's with the secret service. As the years pass, the two form a grudging bond based on mutual respect and understanding and Hanratty even becomes an unlikely father figure. While Frank Sr encourages his son to carry on as a kind of revenge against the law which wrecked his life, Hanratty does, underneath his gruff exterior, seem genuinely concerned for the boy.
Spielberg keeps the tone bright throughout and pulls off some wonderful comic set-pieces, such as Frank and an upmarket call girl (Jennifer Garner) hustling each other and his unique method of getting through an airport packed with federal agents, but reality is always poking through. Frank's meetings with his father become more and more painful as Frank Sr's life deteriorates. Spielberg also drops chastening reminders of the consequences of Abagnale's lifestyle. While he never sought to hurt anyone, his lies inevitably have victims. At one point he's engaged to a New Orleans socialite, a relationship which ends with his broken-hearted fiancee forced to act as bait in an FBI ambush.
Frank himself comes across as a lonely young man who discovers he can't have the American dream and tries to steal it. Critics who have complained that Catch Me If You Can ignores the political turmoil of the 1960s are missing the point. Vietnam and Civil Rights would have had little effect on Abagnale. To a kid watching the movies, TV shows and commercials of the time, the 60s was about groovy guys like Steve McQueen, Dean Martin and Sean Connery dressing in sharp suits, driving sports cars and picking up beautiful women wherever they went. In one scene, having just watched Goldfinger, Frank goes out and buys Connery's suit and car and practices saying, "Hello Pussy" in the mirror. Spielberg and his cinematographer Janusz Kaminski shoot the more upbeat scenes in the style of the glossy films of the period, with a soft picture and hazy lighting, a harsher modern look intruding as the dream sours.
Leonardo DiCaprio, a fine actor, has risen to stardom playing melodramatic heroes in epic films like Titanic, Romeo And Juliet and Gangs Of New York. In Catch Me If You Can, he proves he can still deliver a strong, understated performance while losing none of his movie star charm. Tom Hanks, playing against type as a tough and rigid agent, provides a strong foil for the star. The meatiest role goes to Christopher Walken, whose Frank Sr is funny, frustrating and sometimes difficult to watch as he succumbs to failure and shame.
This is another triumph for Spielberg, his fourth in a row after the shakier ground of The Lost World and Amistad. It's gratifying to see such diversity in his work, especially as ten years ago many were writing him off. He's always been a technically brilliant director but his films no longer just entertain for two hours, they stay in your head afterwards. Catch Me If You Can is a hell of a lot of fun but, when it's over, it's the sadness underneath that sticks with you.