My Son the Birdman
Fernando F. Croce on Catch Me if You Can

In the dystopian future of Steven Spielberg's Minority Report, prisoners are kept stored inside pneumatic glass tubes, where visions of their crimes are projected continuously before their eyes. For the breezy past of Catch Me If You Can, released six months later in 2002, the director posits an even more bitter punishment: to witness your past offenses being made into vacuous pop tripe, and, worse, to participate in the process. As an introduction to the fanciful yet fact-based story, the film follows its Saul Bass–inspired opening credits with a brief re-enactment of an episode of the TV quiz show To Tell the Truth, in which the protagonist, notorious conman Frank Abagnale Jr. (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), makes an appearance as himself. As Abagnale’s list of crimes and punishments—multiple unlawful impersonations, millions pocketed through bad checks, years spent in prison—is recited to the accompaniment of cheery music, the camera zeroes in on the young man on the TV soundstage (“The most outrageous impostor we have ever had on this show”), and his fierce, uneasy eyes immediately seem at odds with the buoyant surroundings.

The sense one gets in this short but telling sequence is that of a troubled person caught in the gears of a media machine bent on smoothing out human complexities for the sake of viewer amusement. Samuel Fuller achieves a similar effect towards the end of his 1964 masterpiece The Naked Kiss, when the heroine’s thorny act of killing her child-molesting beau is reduced to a sensationalistic newspaper headline flashing word by word on the screen, stating the facts while flattening the truth. Recall Fuller’s own background in tabloid news, and the self-critical implications of this passage become all the more cutting; Spielberg never worked on TV quiz shows, though over the years he’s certainly become familiar with accusations of simplifying unsettling issues (a woman’s emotional and sexual abuse, the Holocaust, war, slavery) into palatable entertainment. And palatable entertainment is how Catch Me If You Can functions on the surface, as a lighthearted project Spielberg took over from another director which allowed him to have fun after working on a string of serious ventures. Its comedic tone may at first seem thin in the wake of A.I. or Minority Report, but, as tensions begin to crack that lively surface, the old saying about “many a true word spoken in jest” comes to mind. Jam-packed with product labels and advertising slogans and clips from TV shows and movies, this is perhaps the Spielberg film most saturated with pop culture, as well as the one that most cannily illustrates the director’s ambivalence towards it.

“Let’s go home.” Those classic Spielbergian words, with echoes in films both past (E.T.) and future (The Terminal), are here voiced during Frank’s second, radically different appearance, filthy and trembling beneath a mess of matted hair as he’s located deep in the bowels of a French penitentiary. The year is 1969, the young trickster has at last been caught, and, for the rest of the picaresque narrative, Jeff Nathanson’s screenplay (adapted from Abagnale’s own autobiography) zigzags back and forth throughout the decade, alternating between scenes of the protagonist being brought under police custody and flashbacks to his countless scams and masquerades. One question remains constant, never explicitly asked yet infusing every effervescent Janusz Kaminski camera movement and jazzy John Williams cue with hints of melancholia and desperation: Where’s “home”? To the teenage Frank, “home” is a storybook family portrait comprised of himself, his charismatic small-time businessman father, Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken), and his glamorous French mother, Paula (Nathalie Baye). Whether remembering how he met Paula during World War II or repeating his can-do mantras about the importance of hard work and polished appearances, Frank Sr. remains a hero in his son’s eyes, an image of affable paternal strength that’s gradually chipped away as unspecified troubles with the IRS curdle his marriage.

Imbued with all of the fallibilities of Spielberg’s screwed-up paterfamilias but given none of their opportunities for heroic redemption, Frank Sr. is the filmmaker’s most hapless father figure, a man increasingly hollowed out by the gulf between the idealized fantasy of potential and success he repeatedly exalts and the economic struggles he endures in reality. Even at his most diminished, however, he’s never denied the warmth and vulnerability of Walken’s marvelous performance. By contrast, Paula is presented rather simplistically as an emotionally aloof opportunist who, by seeing other men behind her now-struggling husband’s back, is revealed to still be the WWII village belle offering herself to the highest Yankee bidder. The casting of Baye, among the last muses of Spielberg hero François Truffaut, is just one of the elements connecting the couple’s break-up scene to The 400 Blows. As alarmed as a hare, Frank Jr. runs away from his ruptured family, but, unlike Antoine Doinel in the French New Waver’s wayward-youth classic, he ends up not on a deserted beachfront but up in the friendly skies of the Jet Age. Having earlier learned about the benefits of pretense by impulsively impersonating a high-school teacher, he begins concocting one counterfeit persona after another in order to pass fraudulent checks. By the time the boy’s elaborate game of dress-up comes to an end years later, he’s donned the uniforms of Pan-Am pilots, doctors, lawyers, and even government agents.

A more analytical filmmaker (say, Steven Soderbergh in The Informant!) would have contemplated the protagonist’s suave and anxious gallery of masks from a mordant distance. Not Spielberg. The feeling rushing through Catch Me If You Can is one of intense identification bordering on the autobiographical, with the characters’ dreams and demons seemingly in sync with the director’s. Himself a child of divorce, a divorced parent, and an artist whose tug of war between juvenile impulse and mature aspiration is etched onto every film, Spielberg sees his emotional atom split between Abagnale the shape-shifting naïf and his pursuer and nemesis, frugal FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks). Playing plodding bloodhound to Abagnale’s frisky fox, Hanratty is a stolid, frequently humiliated Inspector Javert who, we discover over the course of the film, is ultimately as alone as the man he’s chasing. In that sense, he’s like a less monolithic variation of Ben Johnson’s gruff police captain in Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express, only here the inevitable collision of fugitive youth and adult authority results not in death but something close to equilibrium. The jaunty prodigy who takes his cues from James Bond flicks and Dr. Kildare episodes in an obsessive quest to recreate his shattered home versus the dour wonk who’s lost his family and can’t even tell a joke: could they be two halves of the same consciousness?

Set in an airy, sprightly 1960s that seems light-years away from the turmoil that quaked the decade in real life, the film nevertheless doesn’t shy away from investigating the materialistic pitfalls of a culture in flux. The upper-scale household into which Frank stumbles as he becomes engaged to an impressionable young nurse (Amy Adams) is a WASP suburban cocoon depicted with equal portions of fondness and derision, and a midfilm encounter between him and a cover-girl-turned-escort (Jennifer Garner) is a fascinating portrait of a couple of kids in oversized clothes coming to terms with the acerbic idea that sex can be just another transaction in a world of never-ending hustle and bluff. Even the final stretches, in which the incarcerated Frank joins forces with Hanratty in helping track down the forgers he used to be, complicate their apparent endorsement of conformity with an undercurrent of ironic disdain for the dreary respectability of the “normal” world. Frank in his gray office like a birdman with his wings clipped could be Henry Hill the pajama-clad schnook on the porch at the end of Goodfellas, except that, as Spielberg’s camera cranes away, we’re left with the notion of juvenility and maturity striking a hopeful if precarious balance within a bustling void. A director’s captivating confessional disguised as a lambent crowd-pleaser, Catch Me If You Can combines technical mastery with emotional nakedness in ways that make Spielberg’s more solemn efforts look strained by comparison.