Movies You Gotta See
Catch Me If You Can and the heart of Steven Spielberg
By Jalen Maki
Broken families can be found throughout Steven Spielberg’s filmography. It’s a theme he’s grappled with in a variety of ways–offering the perspective of kids affected by their parents’ separation, focusing on a family missing a father figure, examining the relationship between an estranged father and son. This career-spanning fixation culminated with 2022’s The Fabelmans, an autobiography centered on the disintegration of his own family unit when he was 19 years old.
In 2002, Spielberg released Catch Me If You Can. Call the film what you want–a top-tier con movie, an entertaining globe-trotting caper, a satire of the financial greed and material desires pervasive in society–but to me, it’s possibly the most fun, yet sad, movie in Spielberg’s filmography and one of his most earnest explorations of the broken home.
Catch Me If You Can pits at-the-time ascending movie star Leonardo DiCaprio against Oscar winner Tom Hanks in one of the best head-to-heads of the decade. In the film, based on true events, DiCaprio stars as a youth named Frank Abagnale Jr. By watching his father, Frank Sr. (played by the always terrific Christopher Walken), Frank learns how to utilize charm to pull off confidence scams. After his dad runs into a snag with the IRS–well, less of a “snag” and more of a “tax fraud investigation”–Frank and his parents move out of their massive home in New Rochelle, New York, and into a small apartment. On Frank’s 16th birthday, his father opens a checking account for him. This is usually a semi-important but ultimately mundane event in a person’s life, but for Frank, it’s a crucial milestone.
Taking a few plays from his old man’s playbook, Frank figures out that he’s also got a knack for swindling. Upon arrival at his new school, he passes himself off as a substitute French teacher, a grift he maintains for a week. Frank’s mother is understandably distraught, but Frank and his dad share a quick laugh as they leave the principal’s office. Frank Sr.: appreciator of a good hustle.
Frank’s parents split up shortly thereafter, which is the key event in the film. A devastated Frank hops a train out of town and writes a few bad checks to keep his head above water before resorting to forging checks and cashing them at various banks. Frank’s smooth demeanor allows him to execute this racket with ease, and his newfound self-assurance leads to him upping the stakes. Through a few fairly simple yet brilliant schemes, Frank begins impersonating a third-seat Pan Am pilot, and before long, he’s criss-crossing the country, raking in money from his bogus checks, and having a pretty good time along the way.
Eventually, the FBI catches wind of Frank’s ongoing fraudulent check con–which, to be clear, is insanely illegal–and Agent Carl Hanratty (Hanks, doing an accent the origins of which I have yet to pin down), a bank fraud expert, begins working to bring Frank to justice. The first scene between DiCaprio and Hanks is absolutely lights out. After tracking Frank to a Hollywood hotel and entering his room intent on slapping cuffs on him, Frank, through sheer force of confidence and charm, convinces Carl that he’s a Secret Service agent on the case and slips away just before Carl realizes he’s been duped.
As the film progresses, Frank’s boldness grows, and he continues to push the envelope, stepping up his hustles while Carl stays on his trail. Frank eventually falls in love and gets engaged, and he calls Carl on Christmas Eve. The genuine sadness in Frank’s voice when he begs Carl to stop chasing him is a stark reminder that Frank is just a teenager. He might want forgiveness for his transgressions, but he can’t fully understand their gravity, and he certainly doesn’t want to bear the brunt of their consequences. In fact, he never really seemed to consider them at all, until they became inescapably real.
One could chalk all this up to a blatant disrespect for authority in pursuit of personal gain (not an unfair assertion), but I choose to call it irresponsibility and ignorance by way of adolescence. Did Frank repeatedly break laws in several sovereign nations? You bet he did. Should he have been subject to the repercussions of his crimes? Absolutely. But is he a bad person? No, he’s not, and Carl knows this. He understands that Frank isn’t some devious criminal mastermind out to hurt people–he’s a comic book-reading kid who made a series of colossally dumb decisions.
Even though Frank’s cons are complex, Catch Me If You Can is a pretty straightforward film thematically. Watching Frank grift his way around the globe is a blast, but no matter where he goes, how many fake checks he cashes, how many women he hangs out with, or how many New York Times headlines he creates, he cannot outrun his loneliness. At the end of the day, he’s a just boy, broken by his parents’ broken marriage and a victim of his own inability to make sense of it. Every scam Frank pulls is just a futile attempt to fill the hole created by the dissolution of his family. He’s consumed by the idea that maybe if he lies his way into a more prestigious job, or if he buys his dad a newer car or a nicer suit, his mother will think they’re worthy again, and she’ll come home. It’s the kind of tragic, naïve vanity that only a kid would cling to.
Frank isn’t the only one heavily affected by the divorce. Each time his father appears on screen, it looks like he’s aged half a decade. While Frank Jr. maintains his youthful exuberance, Frank Sr.’s life force seems to be slowly drained from him. Frank and his father are very similar people, both holding family in high regard, but when it’s stripped away from them, they diverge in their reactions. While his father eventually accepts the situation and retreats into a quieter, simpler life, Frank does the opposite. He doesn’t try to come to grips with what’s happened and attempts to create a fantasy existence. Instead of facing reality, he’d rather live a lie–a very enjoyable and lucrative lie, but a lie nonetheless.
I can’t think of another Spielberg movie that is simultaneously as fun and sad as Catch Me If You Can. The movie is not all doom and gloom, however; it truly is a great time. But Spielberg doesn’t let you forget that there’s something deeper at work, and it’s one reason why he’s a master of his craft. His films can be taken at face value, and if viewed that way, they can be delightful, but they’re never superficial. They’re often very emotionally resonant and, when taken in the context of Spielberg’s own family experiences, quite impactful.
Shot by his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, Catch Me If You Can looks like a Spielberg movie, but more importantly, it feels like a Spielberg movie. Beneath the dazzling camera work, incredibly blocked shots, and A-plus performances is a film full of yearning and humanity. As a filmmaker, Spielberg doesn’t shy away from the pain he’s endured. In fact, he embraces it and channels it into something honest and heartfelt. Spielberg’s sentimentality might come off as cheesy or cheap for some, but I’d take it over hollow storytelling any day.
Although their relationship is adversarial at the start, Carl and Frank eventually become friends. Carl, a divorcee himself, empathizes with Frank’s feelings of familial loss. The kindness Carl shows Frank is classic Spielberg: there’s no situation in which the man will not try to tug at your heartstrings, and we love him for it.
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