Catch Me If You Can

Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can is a breezy but smart thriller, a briskly paced film whose playful title captures the charm and ease of this story, but barely hints at the surprising emotional nuances that Spielberg finds in this 1960s con man who skipped across America inventing occupations and identities for himself. It's based on the true story of Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio), who runs away from home at the age of seventeen and immediately begins concocting grand schemes that are as much about creating a glamorous identity for himself as about all the money he makes through counterfeit check schemes. For Spielberg, Abagnale is still a kid when he runs away, trying to recapture an idealized image of happiness and family and security that he lost in his teenage years. The film opens with some unnecessary framing material set after Abagnale's eventual capture, but it doesn't really start until the scenes of the Abagnale family's 1960s suburban bliss.

Frank's father (Christopher Walken) is an honored man in their community, a local businessman who's recognized by his peers and respected by all. Frank Sr. is, above all, proud of his wife, Paula (Nathalie Baye), who he met during World War II in France. Frank Sr. tells the story of how he met her over and over again, how he saw this gorgeous blonde dancing in a small village and vowed that he "wouldn't leave France without her." As he tells the story over Christmas, dancing with his wife as Frank looks on, Frank knows all the words by heart, can fill in the blanks with ease. It's a story he cherishes, because it contains the essence of Frank Sr.'s philosophy, an ideology of entitlement that he passes on to his son: if you want something badly enough, if you fight hard enough for it, you will get it. Of course, the Abagnales' happy life eventually falls apart as Frank's father gets in trouble with the IRS and spirals into ruin and disgrace. His wife begins bringing other men around, and Frank knows that trouble is coming, but he still isn't prepared for the announcement that his parents are getting divorced. Unable to deal with it, he simply runs away.

Those early scenes, bright and idyllic as they are, are like TV sitcom visions of domestic contentment: the glamorous mother and suave father, an icon of paternal serenity even as his life collapses around him. Frank carries these visions off into the world, memories of the paradise he's lost and is now trying to recover. He is an intuitive mimic, and he is seeking alternate realizations of the glossy glamor of his childhood. He sees a pilot, in his crisp black uniform, surrounded by beautiful, cheery stewardesses in pale blue, and he immediately seizes upon this image as his own goal. Other kids would want to learn how to fly, to go through the work, to achieve that ambition, but not Frank. He doesn't want to fly, he just wants to be a pilot, and to him the two are almost unconnected. It's not the job he wants, it's the image of himself in that handsome uniform, surrounded by pretty, giggling girls. It's the sensation of walking down the street, turning heads wherever he goes. The film is set in an era when flight still seemed a little magical, and certainly very adventurous: the pilot is a kind of globetrotting hero, in control of these giant metal birds that only he really understands how to handle, living a life of adventure all around the world. When Frank occasionally reports in to his father with his adventures, his father is impressed by how "exotic" his son's life is. He says the word repeatedly, with a kind of reverent awe: where are you going tonight, Frank, he asks, somewhere exotic? Frank is able to continue and even improve upon the life of glamor and respect that his father lost when his finances fell apart.

Frank's opposite number is the FBI agent Hanratty (Tom Hanks), who makes it his mission to catch Frank as the con man's tricks grow bolder and bolder. Frank and Hanratty share a Christmas tradition, a telephone call from the lonely man on the road to the lonely man in the office. Both have nothing better to do on a family holiday. Both have shattered families. Hanratty still wears his wedding ring, as Frank points out, but he's not lying when he says he doesn't have a family; the air of sadness of a man with nothing waiting for him outside the office is unmistakable. The film is nakedly about the desire for family; it's not even a subtext, it's what drives everything Frank does, everything he wants. He doesn't even care about the money, not really. At one point, he pulls out a pair of suitcases that are stuffed with loose bills, carelessly tossed inside and crumpled up. Frank projects such a calm, self-assured demeanor most of the time that it's easy to forget, even for the audience, what an insecure child he still really is, but moments like that make it clear. He's got suitcases full of money that he doesn't know what to do with, and still he keeps going, keeps writing bad checks, keeps making up new identities: a doctor, a lawyer, a Harvard graduate, a Berkeley graduate. It's not about wealth for him, but what the wealth stands for: respect, security, acceptance, being able to impress people. He's after the vibe of that Rotary Club dinner — the first scene of the film after the framing material — where his father is honored by his town's most respected men, even the mayor himself.

Frank thinks he's found this restoration of family life in Brenda Strong (Amy Adams), a young nurse who he meets in a hospital, and who spontaneously inspires in him yet another lie, yet another identity: as a doctor. This, more than anything else Frank does, makes it clear that it's not money he wants. There's no money in this ploy, not really, but there's the respect of being in a noble profession, and there's the obvious adoration of Brenda, who's the same age as Frank, more or less, but seems like a giggly teen in comparison to his assured maturity, which makes him believable when he says he's a decade older than he actually is. (The casting of DiCaprio is ingenious in this respect: he looks awkward and ungainly as a teen in the early scenes, then seems to naturally grow into Frank's cocky-kid projections of maturity and confidence.)

Frank rediscovers, with Brenda and her family, the happy home life he'd lost as a child. They are almost surreal, this cheery, tight-knit family, and it's easy to forget the darkness lurking just around the corner: Brenda's Irish Catholic parents had kicked her out after she'd slept with a boy and gotten an abortion. Frank's seeming respectability wins them back over, not only to him, but to their own daughter. They're living a different kind of lie from Frank, lying to themselves about their own goodness, rejecting their daughter as a slut until she returns with a handsome doctor who wants to marry her. Spielberg kind of glosses over this subtext, but it's there nonetheless, lurking beneath the unreal cheeriness and familial closeness of this household. In a David Lynch film, the Strongs would be a parody of suburban nicety and inner hypocrisy, but one senses that Spielberg sees them in more of a rosy light. They're funny, this stern but sentimental couple who do the dishes together, their butts swaying in time to the music, dancing together as they do domestic chores, totally in sync and totally contented. Frank watches them and sees in them his own parents, dancing together in the living room on Christmas, totally happy and totally into each other.

It's a dream of family, an ideal, and Spielberg's cinema is perfectly suited to capturing ideals. This is such a rich film because Spielberg seems to identify so completely with Frank the innocent trickster, always in search of family, always in search of a childhood innocence that's gone forever. Everything in the film is seen through this lens. Everything is 1960s glossy, bright and airy, clean and pure. Only occasionally does Frank touch up against the grimier underpinnings of the fantasy life he's building for himself: a glimpse of a bloody leg during his doctor ruse, a negotiation with a prostitute that's a letdown after he thought he was having just another romantic encounter, the tears of Brenda when she tells him about her abortion and again when he has to leave her, to go on the run again. These are reminders that the fantasy is just a fantasy, that the glossy world Frank is erecting around him can only remain intact so long as he keeps his blinders on to everything he's running from, everything that's poised to destroy his dreams. Spielberg brilliantly constructs that glossy fantasy world, a con boy's dream of love and family, and he brilliantly explores the emotions of the man running through the fantasy, breathlessly exclaiming "catch me if you can" as though it's all a game, even if it's really anything but.