Catch Me If You Can

(Steven Spielberg, USA, 2002)


I am not a fan of Steven Spielberg, apart from that glorious moment in recent film history when the ghost of Stanley Kubrick slyly perverted every aspect of the Spielbergian vision in, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001).

However, no one can deny that, when Spielberg has inherently strong material to work with, he can really deliver the goods on a basic, mechanical, storytelling level.

Stylistically, Spielberg clocks in as the most relentlessly schematic director in contemporary cinema. Every scene in Catch Me If You Can is diagrammatically constructed: from overhead to ground-level camera set-ups, from wide shots to shot/reverse shots, from gliding movements to concentrated stillness – and always ending with a movement (whether through montage, camera, mise en scène or all three) into the brooding face of one or other central character.

But the film tells a gripping tale. It is based on – "inspired by" are the judicious words used in the opening credits – the autobiography of Frank Abagnale Jr. Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) managed, at a tender age, to fool many people that he was a airplane pilot, a lawyer, and a few other things in the bargain. He was a dab hand not only at insinuating himself into any professional situation, but also at defrauding the system. DiCaprio, with this devilish yet still boyish charisma, is perfectly cast.

For the first time since The Sugarland Express (1974), Spielberg sketches a panorama of American social life and its manners. Signs of the cool ’60s, like television game shows and the romance of air travel, are recreated with panache. His regular collaborators, composer John Williams (pulling off the difficult task of supplying a "jaunty" score) and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, serve him well.

But, in a story where the chief good guy, Carl (Tom Hanks), is a stolid FBI agent, the action steers well clear of any looming political issues. The film unfolds in an abstract USA, lacking any history except that of pop consumerism. And this exclusion has a lot to do with Spielberg’s deepest, personal investment in the material.

There is only one subject that truly captivates and ignites Spielberg’s storytelling imagination: the divided, nuclear family unit, and the agony it causes to the abandoned child. His most intense films are those which can approach this subject most directly, such as Empire of the Sun (1987).

Spielberg’s films are frequently populated by terrified, lost children, unfaithful mothers, and vanishing fathers. They are equally full of handy, substitute parental figures, as incarnated by Hanks here and in Saving Private Ryan (1998). What old fashioned, sentimental, conservative agony the broken home triggers in this auteur!

Usually, Spielberg is able to reconstitute at least part of this primal tale of abandonment, no matter what subject matter he is ostensibly dealing with. He is not above forcing his material to fit into this mould, as is certainly the case here. Abagnale’s real-life story does not hinge on father-worship, nor the desperate drive to prove himself to his parents, nor the attempt to mend the broken home.

But Spielberg’s Frank cannot be a gleeful anarchist. He must be a tearful, pining son, a rebel with a cause. He runs (in the film’s major motif) not to flee the law or to cock a snoot at the world, but out of pained despair at his unhappy home.

Abagnale’s true story seems to be about the things that Spielberg plays down, like the lust for big money and endless sex. But what would have been rendered by Oliver Stone or Martin Scorsese as a grand parade of dollars, consumer goods, world travel and flesh is here presented in a quite modest, almost Franciscan way.

Abagnale gets away with a lot, and many of his exploits are outrageous, but what really counts here are those scenes where he gazes adoringly at his victimised Dad (Christopher Walken) or spies the wicked way of his Mom (Nathalie Baye) – she commits the sin of remarriage – through the window that marks his exclusion from the ideal, happy-family dream.

MORE Spielberg: The Color Purple, Hook, The Lost World, Schindler’s List, The Terminal, Munich, The Fabelmans

© Adrian Martin January 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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