In what may be his most nakedly personal picture, Steven Spielberg performs an act of cinematic alchemy. Catch Me If You Can should be enjoyed as a blast of retrospective, of Rat Pack cool, of unbridled American nostalgia for a distinct time and place. Considered by many to be the modern master of the chase film, Spielberg creates what is at first glance a weightless chase movie, a careless pastiche. Underneath the coruscating surface of hip patinas, however, exists a picture of marked subversiveness and philosophical toiling—a film that simultaneously extols and critiques the very foundational artistic buttress of its creator. What results from this pièce de résistance is nothing less than a singularly fluent ambuscade, naturally appealing in its demeanor while supplying a multi-layered visual shorthand and ruminative ambivalence that transcends the mostly “true story of a real fake,” as the film's poster's tag-line promises in the first of a plethora of self-conflicted filmic aphorisms.
Leonardo DiCaprio gives the best performance of his career as teenager Frank Abagnale, Jr., whose gleefully related trouble-making immediately veered toward the supplanting of authority and its figures through fraudulent means (he assumes the position of substitute teacher in a French class and succeeds in carrying it off for days on end). After his parents' marriage disintegrates into the acrimony of divorce, however, Frank, Jr. expands on his con-artistry, reaching a lasting pubescent criminal landmark, literally running away from his situation, switching identities at will and posing as an airline copilot, doctor and lawyer, cashing millions of dollars worth in forged checks before he reached the age of nineteen. Suave and charismatic with a childlike, wide-eyed wonder, DiCaprio imbues Frank, Jr. with the sentiment of the fundamentally good child gone astray. Playing adult, and furthermore doing so in specifically respect-attracting vocations, DiCapro's Frank, Jr. is just a little like the proverbial child in the candy store. It is with a wild, frolicking sense of frenzied pace that Spielberg gives filmic life to Jeff Nathanson's screenplay (based on Frank Abagnale, Jr.'s autobiographical book). Spielberg is enormously aided in this effort by editor Michael Kahn, whose crisp, nearly flawless assuredness helps make a 142-minute picture fly by at a most appropriate celerity, conveying Frank, Jr.'s literal and figurative flying through the American dream.
Echoing Spielberg's own childhood, family life and broken home, the picture likewise demonstrably carries with it the respective escape hatches through which Frank, Jr. and Spielberg rushed as youths. Left to their own recuperative imaginations, Frank, Jr. and Spielberg essentially recreated themselves. In so doing, they found creative glee in the manufacturing of entire scenarios (one, the details of his own identity; the other, the mushrooming meanings of his own nascent artistic sensibilities). Viewing the nuclear family as synonymous with contentment at approximately the same time in real history, Frank, Jr. and Spielberg both attempt to seize every opportunity to resurrect it for themselves, even as they eventually fashion new quasi-familial arrangements as part of their undertaking. Frank, Jr. is the ultimate paradox: a child who never grew up passing as an adult in almost everyone's eyes. His almost pathological need to bring his parents back together, to regenerate the personal conditions considered deceased by those who know better, is equally profound and pitiable. Spielberg's personal memory has perhaps never played such a prominent role in his cinema before or since—in many ways Catch Me If You Can operates as a phony-but-true autobiography.
As Spielberg first essays Frank, Jr.'s home life, it is Christmastime. (As the film progresses, Christmas Eve will be a recurring and important motif symbolizing hearth, home and family—and the absence of same in terse but gently paternal telephone confrontations between Frank, Jr. and chastising replacement father figure and FBI agent seeking the con artist's arrest, Carl Hanratty played by Tom Hanks. The mutual loneliness of the conversations is made visually apparent, including one with Frank, Jr. in a lonely hotel room and the other with him resting in a high-class, empty bar after visiting a disheveled bar at which his father was stewing.) Frank, Sr. (an astonishing Christopher Walken) is dancing in the festively decorated living room with his French war bride, Frank's mother (Nathalie Baye) to the song, “Embraceable You.” Later, when Frank, Jr. is courting a pretty Lutheran nurse Brenda (Amy Adams) in Louisiana, he will spy on her mother and father, tenderly dancing to the same song as they wash ditches in their kitchen. In the film's affectionate introduction to the Abagnale household, however, the dynamic between father and son is wonderfully conveyed as Frank, Jr., having briefly left the room, returns, making eye contact with Frank, Sr. as the husband/father figure displays the consequential placement he enjoys in their household, that which he hopes his son will one day achieve for himself. However, the American dream is dashed away when the IRS targets Frank, Sr. on tax evasion charges. The spacious middle class house the Abagnales called home is vacated, their car sold and soon Frank, Jr.'s mother finds comfort and economic hope in Frank, Sr.'s “very good friend,” Jack Barnes (James Brolin), who had given Frank, Sr. an award at the rotary club in Frank, Sr.'s first scene of the film. Having run away from the entire predicament when forced to choose which parent he wishes to live with, Frank, Jr. is Oedipally motivated beyond all else, and fiercely determined to gladden and avenge his beleaguered father.
The opening credits sequence by graphic arts company Kuntzel and Degas recalls the beautiful animated geometric lines so immortally used for Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest. In part, the picture is emulating certain aspects of Hitchcock's self-critiquing playfulness and a bottomlessly deep, nuanced thematic treatment just beneath the film's shiny surface. There is even an open homage to the James Bond film <Goldfinger. In the scene following the Goldfinger homage—complete with Frank wearing the exact same suit Sean Connery wore as James Bond in the film, Frank naming himself after Ian Fleming and acquiring a silver Aston Martin—another, subtler Bond homage commences. Frank meets Cheryl Ann (Jennifer Garner), an escort. Spielberg shoots the scene in low-angle reverence—making the courting begin with the pair's respective pairs of feet immediately meeting cute. Once they make it into a hotel room, “The Look of Love,” the original song from that most fascinating cinematic experiment in 1960s excess and grandeur, Casino Royale, plays during their negotiations.
Meanwhile, Spielberg makes a comment on the glossy Hollywood productions of the era in myriad ways; Janusz Kaminski's bright cinematography reminds of many capers and comedies of the time in which the film is set. Spielberg's emphasis on back-lighting and frequent uses of shafts of “God light” repeatedly cast the young central character and Spielbergian avatar in the blinding light of unreasonable choice. Angered by a man's presence in his home, Frank, Jr. (henceforth simply “Frank”; Frank, Sr. will remain Frank, Sr.) yells at him, all the while reeling backwards into his kitchen. The glowing orange light that engulfs Frank serves as a nimbus in which he is both tested, and, as the film unspools, suspended. It is at this moment that Frank finds his nuclear family shattered. John Williams' jazzy score blithely underscores Frank's deeds. Later, in a hotel lobby, a blinding, multi-pronged waterfall of light will cascade behind Frank as he smoothly makes one man accommodate him.
Spielberg's shooting in low-angle provides not merely a familiar visual commentary on the director's anxiety, ambivalence and abhorrence of institutional structures and central power, but also a heightened note on the anonymity of America itself. The stick figure-like creations in the credits sequence is a revisited visage. Fifteen minutes into the picture, when Frank plays faux chauffeur for his father at a New York City bank, Spielberg shoots the scene from the ground—casting the towering skyscrapers behind the father and son (symbiotic fixtures of the Spielberg lexicon, and finally, two respective individuals outside the corridors of systematic clout) with their anonymous surfaces as contrasts to the entrepreneurial struggles Frank will later endure. And indeed, later as Frank is speaking into a pay-phone, scheming to snag a copilot's uniform from Pan Am, Spielberg commences the scene with an overwhelming shot of the Pan Am Building. The camera quickly reels from the comically absurd imposition—down from all of the windows to the street, and all of the cars, and people, panning leftward until it reaches Frank in the phone booth. A moment later, after having achieved this task, Frank is captured in a bird's eye view. He is walking on a sidewalk, moving through a sea of people. It is because of the copilot uniform, with its hat, that the viewer is able to follow him so easily: he literally looks like a white dot from above.
Seconds thereafter, Spielberg meets Frank down on the sidewalk, the youth walking with great purpose. Women gaze at him; a little girl is delighted to meet him. Frank grins. As he continues to walk, now into the direction of the camera, a black man in a suit can be seen walking with him, to his left. In this shot the two are alone, and together, seemingly walking in the opposite direction of everyone else. A racial component presents itself. Catch Me If You Can has been criticized by the unobservant as not featuring blacks, yet it is this very subduedly mounted sociopolitical essaying that speaks to Spielberg's concerns. At around the forty-two minute mark, seven or so minutes after the shot in which Frank and the black man are walking on the sidewalk, both smiling, both evidently carrying with them the hopes so attendant to the cause of realizing the ascendancy inherent in the promise of the American dream, another pairing, this time of a little white boy and little black boy, presents itself. They are in a bank. Both are dressed almost humorously, wearing pants, dress shirts and glasses. Much later when Frank is playing the role of a doctor, he is finally confronted with the inconvenience of a patient—a black boy has broken his leg in a bicycle accident. “Do you concur?” Frank asks his underlings, learning the television phraseology of medicine from episodes of “Dr. Kildare.” Finally, at Frank's wedding to Brenda, a black singer lets out, “I won't stop 'till I reach the top!” The statement can easily be transcribed to Frank's quixotic quest.
In parallel cases of “screwing,” in one scene flowers are being moved about uncomfortably, humorously shaking. It is revealed that Frank is at his typewriter, carrying out one of his many schemes. A little later, a pile of dishes will rattle and shake—to the soundtrack of a stewardess changing her tune in the previous scene of “No... No!” to “Yes! Yes! Yes!” as Frank employs his sparkling confidence in carnal matters. Spielberg's fixation on the joys and pitfalls of sensualist desires are juxtaposed against both Frank's development as boy-man and criminal con-artist mastermind. Deliriously re-staging the old Hollywood staples he finds so amusing, Spielberg has this first sex scene take place against the background of a storm outside; later, when Adams' Brenda smooches Frank, and the two “make out,” a great rainstorm transpires just outside. A sequence in which Frank the conman interviews would-be stewardesses recalls another Spielberg conman's efforts to find an effective typist in Schindler's List. Elsewhere, the boyhood-turned-phallic obsession of airplanes continues, altered from childlike “pretend” of flying in Empire of the Sun to another “pretend.” Subtextually delivering Frank into one telephone conversation after another with his pursuer, Carl Hanratty, on Christmas Eves, Spielberg highlights the communicative alleviation his son-figures need.
Walken's portrayal of Frank, Sr. is heartbreaking in its poetic demeanor. Crushed by the loss of his wife—whose standing as a French woman in World War II brings to question how she viewed him (as savior from the hell she knew?)—and at a loss of words when talking with his son over an expensive dinner, he finds his sentences finished by his son, all the while only barely able to hold back his tears. Finally, as Frank, Sr. finds his life more mercilessly ripped apart by the government for which he served, his social standing dissipates, descending from the comfortable middle class existence he enjoyed to the fluid, subtly despairing Dickensian camera pan of the down and out at a neighborhood bar at another Christmas, illuminating the lowness to which he has been thrown. (Yet another sly but heated questioning of the “American dream,” and the status of the often-labeled “disenfranchised.”) Something of an irresponsible man as father figure—laughing away Frank's supposedly significant misdeeds at school with his son—he cannot comply with his son when Frank asks his father to ask him to stop his criminal behavior, and his running. (This, in part, a continuation of Spielberg characters pursued by central governmental authorities and electing to run from the punishment they themselves know they do not deserve.) Frank, Sr.'s question for Frank is repeated—“Where are you going, Frank? Someplace exotic?” For the father, a veteran of the Second World War (like Spielberg's father, Arnold) all he can now do is live vicariously through his son.
Wreathed in a kind of palpable humanism, Spielberg's film finds its source of tension not in routine archetypal characterizations and paradigms but in the earnest efforts of people to connect, beyond themselves, to others. Hanks' Carl is a stickler, a perfectionist and a G-man—seemingly humorless, and unfriendly with his coworkers, he himself is deeply wounded by the loss of his wife and daughter, wearing his wedding ring out of impotent defiance. As he tells Frank late in the picture, sometimes the only option that remains is to live the lie. Perusing Spielberg's canon, one finds not stale enactments of positivity and negativity but always a battle of ideas, and considerations of people. Catch Me If You Can recalls nothing less than the director's 1974 picture The Sugarland Express, in which the line between the lawful and unlawful only mattered to the characters, whose fates were observed with great empathy. In Catch Me If You Can, Spielberg's melancholic love for the mischievous, like that of Francois Truffaut, with The 400 Blows, causes the antics to ripple more deeply.
Fear is present, however, but it is a leitmotif of confusion and masculine paranoia. Repeatedly, women are framed, looking directly into the camera (Frank's point-of-view), thusly illustrating the male-female dichotomy at play. This also plays into the color schema of the picture, as faces are brightly put under spotlights. And spotlights encroach upon the fearful, as Carl's car's headlights shine like spotlights through Brenda's house during Frank's wedding celebration. Prismatic shots of Carl's face reflected in the glass frame of Frank's bogus doctorate in Atlanta juxtapose against the splashy colors of Frank's existence, as seen in his clothing, customs and environs. The FBI's institutional color palette is drab and grim, with Venetian blinds casting noirish shadows on the thin-tied G-men roaming their gray offices. It is in this prison of sorts that Frank finally finds himself, away from the comic books of Barry Allan as The Flash, away from the Christmas tree around which his mother and father danced, away from the endless search for home. Frank becomes a cog in the machine, a part of the system, an instrument for the government that hounded both he and his father (who, like his son, joined up--as a Post Office employee). As the closing title cards flash against the new father-son dynamic Spielberg has overseen with such modulation and tempered expectations, the acidic truth bitterly seeps into the nervous system of the viewer. The multifarious lamina that coats the picture is sweet. The core of the candy stings.