Throughout his career, Steven Spielberg has created some of the most popular films of all time, garnering him an enormous amount of respect on both a critical and financial scale. He is considered by many to be the most famous director of all time, given his track record as both director and producer of some of the most recognizable films of the past 50 years. Movie Daddy is a series by Story Screen Editor-in-chief, Mike Burdge, which aims to cover the Beard's directorial filmography in an attempt to present just why Steven Spielberg is very much that hot fire when it comes to being an American filmmaker. In this installment, we’re talking about the director’s underappreciated 2002 caper, which also happens to be one of his best films, Catch Me If You Can.
In the oeuvre of Steven Spielberg’s many forays into different genres over the course of his nearly 50 year career, one would not be blamed for failing to recall his Little Leo Movie™, Catch Me If You Can. You’d imagine something like “DICAPRIO. SPIELBERG.” would be plastered all over the movie’s advertising, even sticking with its legacy as the team-up of the moment, much like Minority Report still remains today to be the legendary joining of the blockbuster forces that were late 90s Spielberg and Tom Cruise. But perhaps the reason CMIYC is so quickly lost within the director’s filmography isn't the fault of the movie itself, but rather, because the dude has made, like, a shitload of very good and even more popular movies. Case in point: I’m here to tell you that Catch Me If You Can is not only one of my favorite movies from Spielberg, but it just might be, pound for pound, one his top filmmaking outputs.
A kid’s imagination is weaponized for personal gain in this rollercoaster of genre-mixing and effortless tonal balancing. (That would be my quote pull if I was trying to be a professional about quote pulls). The very concept and selling power of CMIYC could power a whole city for at least a week. You’ve got a coming-of-age drama tucked within a globe-trotting adventure, with spy and cop vs crook action and suspense, all nestled gently into a family-friendly comedy that’s not afraid to get quite sincere about some very adult ideas. It’s also got fucking Leonardo DiCaprio, that dang Tom Hanks, and ya boi, Christopher Walken, not to mention a radical supporting turn from one Amy Adams. More on all of them in just a moment. For now, let’s look at just what’s going on in this movie, and what particular set of skills Spielberg brings to the table to really pull this feast of spoils together.
As I assume you’d be aware (if you’re reading this) CMIYC follows the real-life story of Frank Abagnale Jr. as a teenager and young adult, traveling the world and forging checks to pay his way in the 1960s, all the while, taking on the identities of several fictional versions of himself, in order to charm his way into a sizable fortune. All the while, Frank is also being pursued by an FBI agent (Hanks) with a penchant for Chinese food on Christmas Eve, using “Good Humah Bahhs” as a bargaining chip. Of course, the movie is heavily dramatized, as all true-life flicks are, and it focuses mostly on explaining what would drive a relatively bright and respectable kid to commit one of the largest cases of fraud and theft in American history, while evading every level of the authorities along the way. The real Frank, who wrote a notably successful book on his escapades, has been known to state that, “It was never really about the money.” And so too is Spielberg’s eye focused on the whys of Frank for the story’s true drama, and letting the hows fill in the action and set pieces to keep the pace going. Here, The Beard continues his exploration of the dynamic between fathers and sons, that he has been drawn to in so many of his other films, most notably: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and War of the Worlds. As these movies, and others, all differ on the specifics of the paternal study, CMIYC finds its anchor in consideration of the odd ways different father figures can be formed from the most unlikely of relationships.
While, yes, the very plot of this movie obviously revolves around success and the American Dream - and the idea of power that pure opportunism can grant to even the most inexperienced and well-intentioned among us - it ultimately reveals itself to be a whimsical study of loneliness and regret. The film posits two points, 1: “How does truth and lies come to define the self-actualization of our own identity and place in the world?” And 2: “How we affect those around us, can be much more important to our own identity, than the simple things we do.” In CMIYC, we’re being told the story of a young man that’s trying to prove himself, seemingly, to the world, but who is ultimately unselfish in expected ways, and really just wants to to impress his father, and fix what his parents have broken. Along the way, we get an unexpected connection between cat and mouse, as both close calls and Christmas calls begin to bridge the gap between cop and crook. Dare we not forget: Catch Me If You Can is very much a Christmas movie, many of its moments of levity rely on conversations and events taking place on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. This time of year can be a lonely time, and our two main characters, both from broken homes, connect on this family holiday, at first as only a vessel for coy shots, but ultimately as friends in the end.
While all of these things are well and fine to have within your movie, giving your finished product a point, that ever fleeting thing that many big blockbusters of this time forget to include (what truly makes CMIYC sing) is Spielberg’s unique approach to comedy, and the murderer’s row of talent that he lines up to execute it. This is easily one of Spielberg’s funniest films, rooted more in lightheartedness, good characters and a fanciful tone, than actual jokes and set-ups. Spielberg himself referred to the comedy of the film as something more in line with “a comedy of errors'' but not exactly:
"I think the comedy is in the cat and mouse pursuit, but the drama, which I think is essential to the basis of the movie, is about a boy who was heartbroken that his parents got divorced and wanted to go into the world and make it all up to his parents."
Here, we can see exactly where Stevey was looking to play: he saw a real, human story at the center of a visually appetizing adventure. Getting involved with this particular project was a little conventional, however. The Dreamboat of Los Angeles, Leonardo DiCaprio, was set to play Frank, based on the screenplay, which had been pitched and adapted from Abagnale’s book, and Leo more or less hired Spielberg out of a desire to simply work with the director. Spielberg was burned out from the darkness of his prior two films, Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report, and was looking for something light to get creative with when DiCaprio’s offer crossed his desk. And, performance wise, DiCaprio is at his smoldering peak, able to play both naive adolescence and cunning charisma back-to-back. However haphazard his character’s actions might seem in the moment, scene to scene, it’s a showcase of the many talents the actor has utilized over his massively wonderful career, tucked within the midst of an epic 10-year run that started with 1997’s Titanic and ran through his explosive performance in 2006’s The Departed. Leo’s been known to talk a phone or two in his films, and this movie is no different. He’s also got a habit for taking on slight (and sometimes, not so slight) accents for some of his characters, and CMIYC finds him swapping accents based on who he’s talking to, in order to make them feel more comfortable, thus more likely to trust him. Embarrassingly, this is something I, myself, do subconsciously all the time, and there’s no control over or malicious intent behind it. I’ve no idea where it comes from, most likely, unknowingly adopted during my time in the military, where I was constantly speaking with people from all over the country with different dialects and ways of conversing, but it’s just interesting to see this tick of mine being weaponized onscreen in such a lighthearted way.
And the rest of the cast? Wowie wow. Tom Hanks gave one of the best performances of his career just four years earlier with Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, and here he tapped into a synergy that would come to define his comeback trail only a few years later. It’s interesting that Hanks’ career bumps and leaps seem so intrinsically tied to working with Spielberg. Saving Private Ryan really marks the peak of Hank’s second wave of the 90s as an awards worthy performer, while Spielberg’s The Terminal, rightfully shut that shit down for a while only two years after CMIYC. And while Hanks continued to work in low-brow thrillers (the Langdon Trilogy), collaborated with extremely exciting creators (Cloud Atlas) and kept his voice work as everybody’s favorite mini-cowboy friend, Woody (Toy Story 3), it can be argued that his comeback to the main fold, seeded lightly by 2013’s Captain Phillips, can be directly pointed at Spielberg’s magnificent 2015 thriller, Bridge of Spies. The director and actor have had an enormously interesting and varied collaborative arc, and I look forward to covering these films in particular (warts and all) as this series continues. But in CMIYC, you can really see the beginning sparks of Hanks’ evolution into #AmericasDad, where his comedic gifts (that were so prevalent to his image in the 80s) combine with his captivating demeanor as an awarded thespian to really converge together to produce a respectable presence in every scene he enters. He’s also low key funny af in this movie, and that alone would make the entire movie sing if none of this other stuff was present.
There’s no shortage of supporting roles in this movie either, as made evident by the Best Supporting Actor noms that were being thrown at Christopher Walken by anybody with a voting council. And Walken is, of course, a delight, and these nominations are well deserved and far more than earned in the quiet scenes he is given. It is unfortunate that he was up against some fierce competition at the Oscars that year for the big supporting award, with John C. Reilly (Chicago), Ed Harris (The Hours), Paul Newman (Road to Perdition) and, the eventual winner, Chris Cooper (Adaptation) really making it quite the tough exercise to get upset about one winning over any other on the list. Still, Walken imbues Frank Sr. with a quiet sadness, and his trademark irreverent energy, leading to a very much needed audience connection with Frank. You really want the elder Abagnale to find pride in his son’s actions, even if only to recognize the talent and skill our protagonist has acquired, but Walken’s sullen face and weathered soul remind us just what happens to folks who try to cheat the system for too long.
It should also be noted that Amy Adams is on some next level shit in this movie, and I am here for it. Every scene she’s in is magic, and much like Walken’s Frank Sr., you really start to feel for the characters as you learn to love them and become more and more afraid of what tragedies Frank’s actions will unleash upon this quaint and darling soul. On the other end of the soulful spectrum, Jennifer Garner’s brief “working gal” scene really reminds you of what this actress was capable of when used correctly. As her character’s presence teaches Frank so much about confidence, charm and cunning, it also reinforces just how good he naturally is at these skills. But with help from Garner’s distracting performances and black widow-esque mannerisms, he misses the true point of the interaction, something Spielberg makes very plain for the viewer: none of this is actually real.
Catch Me If You Can was ultimately a pretty well-regarded success. Great reviews and a $352 million worldwide box office against its $52 million budget is nothing to sniff at. It garnered some decent awards nominations and even healthier buzz. It does, as previously touched upon, have the curse of being lost in Spielberg’s gigantic legacy, which does also happen to be the case with some of his other films that we’ll be covering soon enough. Both in 2002 and in retrospect, the movie received loads of praise from some of the very highest of chairs. Roger Ebert loved it, specifically Spielberg’s approach to glamorizing the actions of Frank, stating: “Once he discovers how much he can get away with, there is a certain heady exhilaration in how easily he finds status, respect and babes.” And in answering some questions on some of his favorite underrated films, Sexually Attractive Person, Guillermo del Toro, lauded the 2002 caper as a work of pure perfection, tweeting: “It’s perfectly engineered. Spielberg is the modern master of the 1-3 minute single shot. Precision work.” And I agree. It’s a perfect movie. It might not be one of the greatest movies of all time, but for what this film sets out to do, you can’t get any better at how it does it at every turn.
Some last stop notes I wanted to include: the visual evolution of the quality of Frank’s forged checks is movie magic at its best. Spielberg has such a gift for communicating information in ways that don’t feel expository, and seeing him utilize these techniques, normally reserved for action set pieces, for jovial montages is a sight to behold. And not only with his crime checks, but also with Frank’s increased confidence in charming people into doing whatever he wants. Frank learns most of his tricks and gets upgrades to his charm game through television. As a movie lover who was, in many ways, raised by TV, (as was Spielberg himself) this is something very heartening to behold as the story progresses in these ways. Hell, the movie even starts off with a fake TV Game Show showing you everything you need to know about Frank’s character as well as the story. And speaking of the opening, the opening credit sequence by French duo, Olivier Kuntzel and Florence Deygas, along with John Williams’ score, is a contender for greatest opening credits of all time. I will die upon this hill, and I shall not be going alone. Incorporating a classic feel for golden age opening credits, this is easily one of Williams’ best themes, and that is an extreme statement to make. The way he uses it in different situations, upping the speed and changing the development of the melody to create tension, is the perfect example of why he’s considered the best. “It’s really a sort of bonbon, if you like? It’s light, it’s amusing and entertaining,” said John Williams, speaking on the film’s appeal, and the welcome challenges he faced in scoring a film that was a change in tone and style from his other collaborations with Spielberg.
I’ve always been evocatively attracted to the leitmotif of bottles and jars with their labels peeled off that reoccurs throughout the movie. Frank’s obsessive tendency to place himself in situations that require patience to be pulled off (get it?) successfully, as well as the obvious metaphor of removing identities from objects and tucking them away. We see that he does this when he’s younger, folding and putting them in his pocket, so this is something he was into before his spree started. It’s a super interesting idea, and an awesome visual that pays off multiple times throughout the film, most specifically, with the first encounter between Frank and Hanks’ Carl Hanratty in a cheap hotel room. As far as I’ve been able to tell, this specific tendency isn’t mentioned by Frank Abagnale Jr. in his book, so it seems to be something created for the film, and I am also very much here for that.
Steven Spielberg is most known for his classics - his adventurous tales of a man with a whip, his epic scope WWII meditations and playing around with wet dinosaurs - but his smaller works are of equal, and dare I say it, often heightened importance, due to my own tastes as a cinema lover. And while most of his smaller (as under-the-radar as a Spielberg movie can possibly get) ventures tend to lean towards the dark (Munich) and stuffy (Lincoln), it’s refreshing to see a man as talented as him try his hand at a comedy-drama like Catch Me If You Can, and yield some amazing results that marks not only one of his best films, but one of the best capers of 21st century to date.
On the next Movie Daddy, we’re gonna get all kinds of artsy up in this piece, as we cover Spielberg’s 1987 attempt to truly break through the awards stratosphere with Empire of the Sun.
Founder of and programmer for Story Screen. Lover of stories and pizza in the dark. When he isn't watching movies, you can find him reading things about people watching movies. He currently resides in Poughkeepsie, NY and most assuredly is going through a French Connection phase.