I end up talking about a lot of different directors during this Cinematic Century project, some of whom get brought up several times. For the most part, this has taken the form of a director having a hot streak, and knocking out several years worth of favorite films. Such as Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder who more or less ran the table on my favorite films of the 1950’s. But there’s one director who has perhaps the largest spread on this project, popping up over the largest amount of time. And that’s none other than the Beard himself, Mr. Steven Spielberg. It’s not really a shocking statement to say that Spielberg can make a hell of a movie, but it’s really miraculous how many fantastic films the man has made, several of which have ended up becoming my favorite films of the year. Such as 2002, which gave us the stellar Catch Me If You Can, which I’m clearly discussing today. I’ve loved this movie since I first saw it, and it has ended up becoming one of my all-time favorites of Spielberg’s. So, it was kind of a shoe-in for my favorite film of 2002. Which actually did end up having quite a few possible films to discuss. Such as my personal favorite of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Two Towers, which I still generally think of as a singular unit, kind of ruining its chances of getting picked. Or hey, we could have talked about the original Sam Raimi Spider-Man movie, which actually doesn’t quite stand up to it’s nostalgic stature upon revisiting. We also could have talked about Spielberg’s other offering for 2002, Minority Report, which actually still holds up really well despite being 2002 as all hell. We could have gotten incredibly heady and confusing with Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, one of the most surreal and meta films ever made. Or we could have talked old-timey fist-fights with Gangs of New York, and Daniel Day Lewis’ absolutely bonkers performance. Or, we could have gotten a little less obvious and talked about a film I really love, and which probably came the closest to getting the number one spot, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, an absolutely insane film, based off an insane potentially real story, and that features one of Sam Rockwell’s finest performances. But, when it came time to choose, I couldn’t deny just how special Catch Me If You Can is, and how much I love it.
In case you weren’t aware, Catch Me If You Can is the true story of a famed con artist named Frank Abagnale. He sold his story’s film right in 1980 which were immediately picked up and recognized as a possible film. However, those rights would get tossed around between many different studios and production companies for decades, before eventually landing at fledgling studio DreamWorks, where it was given to Gore Verbinski to direct. He began prodding he film along at that point, casting all the major roles, and getting Leonardo DiCaprio as his leading man. But, DiCaprio was also committed to Gangs of New York, which proved to be a tortured shoot, lasting far longer than Verbinski’s interests, eventually causing him to drop out of the project. Steven Spielberg, who was running DreamWorks and working as the films producer, began looking for a suitable replacement, and in the process fell in love with the script, deciding that he would film it himself, passing up a handful of other big projects that he was working on at the time. Spielberg ended up recasting a significant portion of the film, but once he took over it became wholly his project, and things started moving quickly. And, the film was eventually released on Christmas of 2002, and instantly became a huge hit, both critically and commercially. And it’s continued to be very well regarded among Spielberg’s filmography. Which makes sense, because this movie rules.
The film tells the story of Frank Abagnale, a young man growing up in upstate New York and learning well from his two-bit con artist father, who was always scheming and looking for a way to stay one step ahead of the IRS. However, his father’s luck eventually runs out, and he’s forced to seriously downsize their life, leading his wife to divorce him, and throw young Frank into a state of confusion and frustration. And, he processes this all by running away from home, using his father’s tricks to try and manipulate people into giving him a pass in life. And, eventually Frank starts to discover a new talent in himself, an almost innate ability to defraud banks with fraudulent checks. Frank begins cashing illegitimate checks all over town, slowly escalating until he finally settles on the best plan yet. He begins impersonating a pilot, using the inherent legitimacy of the uniform to pass off fake payroll checks, and earning himself a high-style life. He even starts deadheading on other companies flights, flying all around the world for free, living the glamorous life of his dreams, all while tricking everyone around him. Unfortunately, this lifestyle eventually catches up with him. Not only do the airlines start becoming aware of someone defrauding them, Frank’s shenanigans eventually reach the FBI, specifically a Special Agent named Carl Hanratty, who becomes obsessed with Frank. Hanratty ends up tracking him down too, and would have arrested the young con-artist if Frank didn’t think fast on his feet, convincing Carl that he was a fellow government agent before slipping away.
But, after sneaking away from Hanratty, Frank realizes that it’s time for his days as a fake airline pilot to end. He continues floating fake checks, but he ends up settling in Florida as Frank Connors, which is when he finds a new scam. Frank decides he’s going to become a doctor. He meets a young nurse named Brenda, and ends up falsifying credentials to become a new attending physician in her hospital, gaining most of his medical knowledge from television shows. But, he does fairly well, and ends up gaining the love of Brenda, who grows confident enough to ask for Brenda’s hand in marriage. He meets her father, Roger Strong, a respected lawyer in Louisiana, and Frank pretty quickly realizes that he has a new interest. He gets permission to marry Brenda, and a new surrogate family to boot, and he also decides that he’s not going to become a lawyer. He even studies and legitimately passes the Louisiana bar, becoming a fledgling lawyer working under Roger. Unfortunately, thanks largely to a need to call and talks with Hanratty every Christmas Eve, Frank gives too much information away, and Carl is able to track him down to his wedding shower. But, Frank slips away just in time, leaving Brenda behind and using his skills as a fake airline pilot to escape the South and continue on to further adventures.
Which is when Frank starts to go off the deep end. The FBI are irritated that Hanratty has been outwitted so many times, but he keeps investigating Frank, eventually finding him again in Europe, while Frank jets around the continent, using more fake checks than ever before. But, going off a hunch, Hanratty decides to travel to a small town in France, the town that Frank’s mother was born in, and manages to find his hideout, where he’s moved on to just making his own fake checks. Hanratty manages to get Frank to give up, but in the process he’s arrested by the French police, who lock Frank away for several years before Hanratty is able to extradite him to America. Frank tries to run away once more when they get to the States, largely because Carl has to break the news that his father died while Frank was in French prison, but he’s eventually captured and placed in American prison. However, he finds a new purpose when Carl begins visiting him, telling him about other financial frauders he’s investigating, using Frank’s expertise. This eventually earns Frank a job with the FBI, working side by side with Carl Hanratty as a new expert in bank fraud. And, after some slight hiccups and draws back to his old way of life, Frank settles into some semblance of a legitimate life.
I’ve said it before here on Cinematic Century, and I’ll say it again. I love a good conman movie. And, Frank Abagnale may be one of the most successful con artists of all time. Which is brought to vivid life in this wonderful little movie. It’s just impossible to not like this movie, and I’ve loved it ever since I first saw it when it was released. It’s a relentlessly fun movie, jet-setting all around 1960’s America, giving one of America’s most charismatic actors that chance to smile and trick his way through several lifetimes of fraud and schemes. It’s just a thrilling, hilarious, heartfelt little movie that I honestly don’t think could have been pulled off nearly as successfully by any other director. It’s that Spielberg charm that’s able to make such a likable story out of someone who is committing these many crimes. It also doesn’t hurt that Spielberg himself had a somwhat similar younger life to Frank, fleeing from a divorcing family and literally conning his way onto the Universal studio lot, pretending to have a deal and learning more about the industry. Mixed with the phenomenal John Williams score, the wonderful set direction, and just a cavalcade of young actresses on the cusp of breaking out, this film just ends up becoming something incredibly special. A little story about America, for good or bad, that reminds us that we all have a little grifter in us, and that we always want to root for the outlaw, sticking it to the man. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that it’s such a light-hearted and fun romp.
Which, is kind of what makes this film so fascinating. Steven Spielberg has an incredibly weird career, and it entered its latest and perhaps strangest chapter after 1993. In that year he released one of the most commercially successful films of all time, Jurassic Park, and one of the most critically successful films of all time, Schindler’s List. After that miraculous one-two punch he didn’t make a film for several years, setting up DreamWorks in the process, and then put himself down a path where he’s vanish for a few years, and then suddenly come back and release three films in two years. And, by and large, these bursts of creativity represent some of Spielberg’s darker inclinations. For quite some time he’d been blamed for the general dumbing down of American audiences, creating the scourge of the blockbuster, and for a while he seemed determined to prove his legitimacy as a “real” director. Which, he more than proved with Schindler’s List. But, apparently he really needed to hammer that in, creating a string of very dark films, showing off a more mature streak than he’d ever had before, telling stories for adults. But, out of nowhere, he came back and told this fun, breezy little story, reminding us all that this sort of story has merit too. Which, becomes especially important when you realize that this is the first film Spielberg put into production after September 11th. He saw a world turning to chaos, and decided that what we needed was a fun movie about a con artist. And, I love it. I love Spielberg’s turn to darkness, but I love this film even more, a wonderful reminder of the legitimacy of comedy and light-hearted fare, which can be just as impacting as the heavy stuff.
Catch Me If You Can was written by Jeff Nathanson, directed by Steven Spielberg, and released by DreamWorks Pictures, 2002.
Categories: Cinematic Century