Article By: Dan Clark
Taking a crazy but true real life story and adapting it for the big screen is a lot more difficult than people might imagine. Just because something really happened does not mean it will translate well to film. Steven Spielberg has been guilty of taking true events, like with Amistad, and over dramatizing their story elements. When you look at the real life story behind Catch Me If You Can on paper it reads as a farcical account that is truly hard to believe. Here the story rolls off the page onto the screen with a suave conviction of genuine reality. The script is airtight as it depicts the unbelievable life of Frank Abagnale Jr., who became one of the world’s most successful conmen before he even entered his 20’s. Catch Me If You Can is a bastion of quality film making of the highest order. From the cleverly slick opening title sequence to the final bit of winking dialog it effortlessly pulls you along this escapade for the ages.
Leonardo DiCaprio was selected to play Frank Abagnale Jr., and he gives one of the best performances of his career. Similar to Spielberg, DiCaprio is guilty of going overboard at times with his acting. Subtly tends to take a backseat to his sensational passion for the role. Sometimes that type of haughtiness is required. For a role like Frank Abagnale Jr., there is a strong need for gradational emotional. DiCaprio brings a sense of sorrow that is shrouded with a covering of debonair. You too fall for his memorizing charm, but beneath the surface is a tormented soul longing for a true connection. Tonally the film has a delicate balance of comedy and hard drama. Great performances like DiCaprio’s make those transitions seamless.
Frank begins his life as a relatively normal kid with a loving family. His father Frank Abagnale Sr. (Christopher Walken) is a business man and World War II veteran, who courted his now wife while he was stationed in France. On the surface everything is going well, but things begin to slowly disintegrate. Frank Sr.’s business falls under IRS investigation and Frank Jr. discovers his mother is actually having an affair. Everything Frank has known for his entire life crumbles into a heap of destruction. When his parents finally decide to divorce he is forced to choose which parent to live with. He is so distraught with emotion he runs away to live on his own surviving on many of the con skills he learned from his dad.
When you see someone with such a unique set of natural abilities like Frank you wonder where it all comes from. We see the foundations set in place, but it is never done in a heavy handed manner. More importantly there are strong character moments, like Frank Sr. conning his way to a free suit for his son, that bring insight to who these characters are. Innocence is stolen from Frank as the harshness of reality sneaks up on him. There are no coping mechanisms put in place, instead his instinct is to keep going and never stop. Once you slow down those empty feelings will catch up to you. These moments are not groundbreaking in their approach, but they are necessary in bringing an understanding of where this drive comes from.
Shortly after Frank runs away from home he begins to grow into quite the scam artist. With each successful scam he gains more and more confidence. He impersonates air pilots, doctors, lawyers, and forges checks for millions of dollars. His success grows so notorious the FBI begins an investigation to discover who he is and how to stop him. The investigation is led by Carl Hanratty (Ton Hanks), an FBI agent who is straight arrow as they come. A cat and mouse game of epic proportions begins as these two foes square off against one another.
Hanks makes for the perfect foil for DiCaprio. While DiCaprio has charm to spare, Hanks has a severely dry and dull persona. They are clearly different sides of the same coin. Both their family lives are full of damage, and they share a very similar skill set. Their relationship grows into a mutual respect, and is one of the more intriguing aspects of the film. Neither is shown as a villain or void of faults. They are just two people who are the products of their environment. This dynamitic is a big part of what makes the movie work, and if anything it could have been explored even further.
It is said that the devil is in the details, and this helps to prove that statement as truth. Jeff Nathanson’s script along Spielberg’s direction is impeccable. Every story element is placed with immaculate precision. Each con is cleverly laid out before us and you can’t help but buy in along with the rubes. We see the minutia of many of their process, which brings in a steady dose of realism. After watching you’ll catch yourself thinking you too could pull off such scams. Spielberg is relentless with the film’s pacing. There is never a wasted moment as you are taken on this wildly fun ride. When things do slow down that mystifying cloud of magnetism begins to evaporate. Frank Abagnale Jr. appears as this broken soul afraid of his own shadow. Watching him plead to Carl for the chase to end is the epitome of heartbreak. Each main character is painstaking layered permitting you to sympathize with their plight. Sure Frank may be an absolute fraud, but he is a fraud you can get behind.
Catch Me If You Can is quite the oddity in Steven Spielberg’s filmography, because it never feels like a Spielberg film. Even the John Williams score has a unique jazzy edge to it. Spielberg molded his direction to fit the material. He avoids many of the clichés he clings to in order to create one of his best films of the 2000’s. Catch Me If You Can is con worth falling for.