‘Catch Me If You Can’ Is a Thriller, but of Lighter, Caper-ish Stock

In the behind-the-scenes featurette for Catch Me If You Can, recently put out on Blu-ray coinciding with the ten-year anniversary of its release, director Steven Spielberg mentions that he had “never worked faster” on a movie than he did on this one: he calls his decision to direct it an impulsive one, and hustled through dozens of locations during a three-month shoot. The movie also came out during one of Spielberg’s bursts of productivity, when he seems to be putting out as many major features as possible in a relatively short period of time, usually of disparate genres. In the 18 months prior to the release of Catch Me If You Can, he also put out A.I. and Minority Report; his recent Lincoln finishes burst that also included War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin.

There’s no practical reason that Spielberg, one of the most powerful and commercially successful working directors, must adhere to these time constraints, but he does so anyway. Perhaps he feels his material will benefit from the urgent behind-the-scenes energy. That’s certainly the case for Catch Me If You Can, the fictionalized account of Frank Abagnale, Jr., a real-life con man who successfully posed as a Pan-Am pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer while committing a prodigious amount of check fraud, largely as a teenager.

In the film, Frank gets to be played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who in 2002 was just the right actor to render Frank’s exploits charmingly boyish while revealing the pain underneath. In Spielbergian fashion, the movie becomes at least partially about Frank’s reaction to his parents’ divorce. Frank idolizes his father Frank Abagnale, Sr. (Christopher Walken), who in a low-key way may be something of a con man himself (he has constant but unspecified problems with the IRS). Throughout his cons, Frank Jr. maintains the hope that his parents will reconcile. (In a recent interview with 60 Minutes, Spielberg discussed blaming his father for his own parents’ divorce, only to realize when he was older that it was actually his mother who fell in love with someone else. In retrospect, the relationship between Frank’s parents in this movie — his mother is the one who leaves — feels like Spielberg wrestling with that conflict, consciously or not.)

Over the years, Frank attracts the attention of straight-arrow FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks). As the two men become aware of each other, a sort of sad intimacy develops between them; Frank even calls Carl on Christmas, a fascinating version of the taunting-killer phonecall from so many seamy thrillers. Catch Me If You Can is a thriller, but of lighter, caper-ish stock. We see Frank learning his fakery by absorbing pop culture of the ’60s: James Bond, medical melodramas on TV, even names out of comic books.

What makes Frank especially fascinating, and oddly likable, is that even when engaging in deception and fraud, he’s not always entirely faking — the question of how he cheated his way past the bar exam in Georgia, for example, torments the analytical Hanratty until Frank reveals, late in the movie, that he simply studied and passed. Similarly, Frank’s affection for his one-time fiancée Brenda (Amy Adams in an early, sweetly heartbreaking role) doesn’t appear insincere; only the entire set of circumstances of their relationship are. He keeps lying in part because he doesn’t allow himself to slow down.

That sense of perpetual motion is goosed by Spielberg’s direction. Catch Me If You Can contains relatively few static shots: the camera circles, wobbles in close-ups, and tracks DiCaprio as he hustles along. This level of activity is not atypical for Spielberg, one of the most gifted movers of cameras in film, but here it gives the film an exciting restlessness, that time-clocked energy of a movie on the go.

Spielberg, especially in his later work, has often been accused of letting his movies drag on too long in their final stretches, and the zippiness of Catch Me If You Can‘s story does suggest a spry 90-minute running time that the movie does not deliver. But rewatching the film freed of the expectation that its fast pace will wrap it up sooner, Catch Me makes sense at 140 minutes: Frank needs to run himself down before the movie can end; he can’t sprint across the finish line.

Apart from new and hideous package art that ditches the movie’s stylish poster in favor of awkward movie-star stills over a white background, the Blu-ray of Catch Me If You Can doesn’t offer new features; they’re all imported over from the original DVD edition and, as such, pre-HD. The main behind-the-scenes material, with comments from Spielberg and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson (who notes the movie’s roots in ’70s con-man pictures like The Sting), offers insight into why the movie works as well as it does, but the best example remains the movie itself: as with Frank, effortless charm belies the skill and emotion behind it.

RATING 7 / 10