Catch Me If You Can
Directed by Steven Spielberg
belongs in the title of Catch Me If You Can, Steven Spielberg’s
defiant new movie that goes back to the 1960s–the era conservative commentators
point to as starting America’s decline–to show the complicated, forgotten
roots of our contemporary social frustration. Spielberg dashes ahead of all
this season’s movies–Antwone Fisher, Gangs of New York,
About Schmidt, 25th Hour, Far from Heaven, Auto Focus,
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, The Hours; even the best of which
barely articulate the connection between society and family, politics and culture,
history and the present. Telling the true story of Frank W. Abagnale Jr., a
con artist who switched identities, posed as an airline copilot, doctor, lawyer
and cashed millions of dollars in bogus checks before he was 21 years old, Spielberg
locates the American myth of ceaseless ambition in the neurosis of a boy attempting
to emulate, please and avenge his father.
criminal exploits (played as innocent eagerness by Leonardo DiCaprio) spring
from a desire to hold his broken family together. His father (Christopher Walken)
is a war vet, a businessman and native huckster who married a French woman (Nathalie
Baye) during the Liberation but loses her when he is hounded for tax evasion.
That evasiveness is a trait the son shares and Frank Jr.’s restlessness
and imagination inspire Spielberg’s bounding narrative. Catch Me If
You Can moves like one of the Indiana Jones films–especially evoking
The Last Crusade’s interplay of a son’s impetuousness and a
father’s wisdom. Abagnale’s nonstop adventures are, in part, a search
for a more stable father figure and he finds it in Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks),
the FBI agent who stalks him. At every moment of Abagnale’s filial panic,
the story’s flashback structure returns to the "present" where he is in
Hanratty’s custody–always a moment of self-reflection.
Spielberg defuses regular con-artist plot mechanisms; there’s little suspense
about Abagnale being caught or a trick going wrong as in The Sting yet
Catch Me If You Can is so charming and watchable that some viewers will
concentrate on Abagnale’s gimmicks and ignore his desperation, the key
to the movie’s gravity. With every pulse of the film’s forward movement,
you’re meant to think about the psychology underlying the young trickster’s
stunts. This constant repositioning of con-game delight signifies the film’s
moral advance (the cultural progress other filmmakers hereafter will have to
catch up to). Spielberg returns the good name to "entertainment"–seriously
damaged in the Michael Bay era–by offering more than entertainment.
Me If You Can exudes immense cultural awareness. I can’t recall another
film that so reveled in pop experience while also scrutinizing its folly except
for Jonathan Demme’s 1986 Something Wild. This could be considered
Spielberg’s Demme movie for the felicitous way it braids together class
and sex and genre but, in fact, these themes are always at the heart of Spielberg’s
most expansive fiction (1941, The Color Purple, Empire of the
Sun). It is exciting to see an entire era recreated this way–not just
surface detail (the opening scene of a To Tell the Truth tv broadcast)
but also the spirit of the times. Spielberg’s breathtaking evocation of
the past only works because the period artifacts and settings are authentically
expressive of the human experience he depicts.
Of the film’s
many extraordinary moments, one stands out for refusing disingenuous Hollywood
convention: after Abagnale’s sexual initiation, he resumes grifting with
a new gleam in his eye, an increased appreciation for the women he sees and
the avaricious potential that lies before him. Spielberg shoots this as a long
pan across a row of female bank tellers, intercutting Abagnale’s avid awareness.
It helps to have a real movie star like DiCaprio put this across yet most moviemakers
never get this rite-of-passage–and it’s central to Spielberg’s
vivid demonstration of American ambition and Abagnale’s preening innocence.
Musical and visual cues are part of the rush: "The Girl from Ipanema," "The
Look of Love," "Come Fly with Me," even a tonally consistent interpolation of
the movie Goldfinger. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski brackets the story
in monochromes but the mid-60s flashbacks have the stylized, ecstatic look of
Sinatra album covers. John Williams’ light-jazz score is like the experimental
ones he used to write for Altman though it also suggests The Pink Panther
theme shot through with intrigue.
takes Catch Me If You Can beyond simple nostalgia; it captures the tangled
essence of American desire. In Abagnale’s fascination with flight (to escape
the stifling working class), he fetishizes airline pilots–uniformed masculine
figures of professionalism, prowess and progress. A dazzling airport ruse with
Abagnale in the midst of smiling stewardesses reveals how these jobs brimmed
with postwar promise. Although that’s the opposite of the 60s hippie myth,
Spielberg’s vision is wide-eyed and wide-ranging; it includes the era’s
newly opened-up social landscape. A hospital sequence in Atlanta features a
black kid in an emergency room bearing a gruesome leg wound. Abagnale stares
at it and asks the interns around him, "Do you concur?" Similarly the entire
film asks what we assent to in our political legacy. It’s the Trent Lott
question posed by a socially aware pop artist, particularly as he examines a
morally challenged kid like Abagnale.
story keeps coming back to the father’s influence is crucial. Spielberg
(and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson, who wrote Rush Hour 2) investigates
Abagnale’s personal motivation through symbols most filmmakers ignore.
Wendell B. Harris’ extraordinary con-man movie Chameleon Street
(an obvious influence on this film) hinted at the significance of patriarchy
then explored individual psychology. Catch Me roots its drama in the
father-son dynamic to keep Abagnale from being viewed too romantically. DiCaprio
and Walken match up superbly. When face-to-face, their gentle eyes contrast
youth and age, optimism and pain. Walken has spent most of his late career playing
hipster fantasy figures but this is the first time since Abel Ferrara’s
The Funeral that anyone’s put Walken in a credible moral context.
The way DiCaprio’s delicate features verge into Walken’s tormented
face illustrates that sons who seek guidance sometimes look upon a void. ("Ask
me to stop!" the boy insists.)
sense of family responsibility persists–even when misguided. His vaguely
criminal tendencies are endemic and likened to the IRS’ unfairness. ("It’s
illegal what they’re doing to us!" Abagnale’s mother says. "They ate
the cake, now they want the crumbs," the father groans.) Spielberg knows we
have as ambivalent a relationship to government as to our parents. That’s
where Hanks’ Hanratty takes over. This responsible, dedicated G-man suffers
his own broken home (he and Abagnale cross paths on lonely Christmas Eves),
yet he provides a sense of conscience and understanding–a second father-figure.
Their law-and-order dynamic suggests a Road Runner cartoon written by
Mark Twain. The moral complexity they exhibit is funny and emotional: crafting
his first phony check, Abagnale presses it inside a Gideon Bible. Hanratty takes
a Boy Scout oath before Abagnale, but Spielberg conveys it as Trust and Admiration.
Essential verities, now as then.
In the nauseatingly
hip Blow, a drug dealer chased the American dream hypocritically, narcissistically.
It was impossible to enjoy or learn from that movie because of its dishonesty–pandering
to the youth audience while pretending rebel, entrepreneurial cred. Abagnale’s
habit of collecting labels torn off product containers (Dad’s Root Beer,
Spam, Gallo, etc.) more credibly illustrates capitalism’s effect on youth–the
influence a consumer culture has on one’s developing identity. In Catch
Me If You Can, Abagnale’s elusiveness derives from this product- and
media-oriented lack of emotional connection. Like the black protagonist in Chameleon
Street, this white youth’s alienation shows in the various guises he
assumes. Encountering a former Seventeen magazine model, Abagnale and
the girl (Jennifer Garner) are just kids acting out the culture’s cynicism
in which parent-child exchange frequently gets reduced to the level of bribes.
Meeting cute, these lost kids–a baby whore and a baby thief–barter
the cost of things, then themselves. (Their high-fashion shoes meet first.)
and bold social critique in scenes like that are typically ignored by Spielberg-haters
who make the unoriginal complaint that he merely promotes the Hollywood system.
They’re also the sort of dull-witted moviegoers who miss that a lingering
shot of Abagnale’s hotel room number isn’t just a closeup of a door
but narrative proof of the room number he gave to Hanratty. What’s more,
it’s a visual representation that confides and confesses a character’s
feelings. This is the epitome of complex, masterful filmmaking. Catch Me
If You Can has a grave, dark undercurrent despite its surface pastels–the
pinks, blues, greens, yellows, sunshine. This vision of the life Americans once
idealized also measures the distance we’ve gotten away from it. Lazy film-watching
and dishonest filmmaking won’t do. Catch Spielberg, if you can.