Spielberg: Catch Me If You Can part 1

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WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT? Frank Abagnale, like John Anderton in Minority Report, has seen his family shattered. Anderton’s family is destroyed by a random child-abductor, but the forces at work on Frank’s family are more nebulous. It is "them," the various authorities and gatekeepers that keep the middle class in their place that seem intent on driving Frank’s family apart — specifically, government agencies, banks and big business. In short, "authority," all those people who, when you try to get a leg up in the world, say "No, you can’t." Frank, like Anderton, will spend the narrative of Catch Me If You Can trying to put his shattered family back together.

Catch Me If You Can is an anomaly in the Spielberg canon. It belongs to no particular genre — it involves aspects of a caper movie, but it is not a caper movie, it is certainly funny in parts but it is not a comedy. It is, in form, a biographical drama like Schindler’s List (and, come to think of it, Schindler is something of a con man himself) but it’s the biography of someone you’ve probably never heard of. What it is, in the end, is a coming-of-age story, a cousin to Empire of the Sun (and similarly enamored of the sacred power of airplanes). Because as Frank trots around the globe trying to put his family back together, he’s also growing from a boy to a man.

We begin with a brief prologue that shows Frank’s appearance on To Tell The Truth. This tells us that Frank is a confidence trickster — that is, it quickly gives us the premise for why we should be interested — but it also tells us that everything turned out okay for him — after all, he’s on television, not a gallows. The prologue goes a long way toward making Catch a pure comedy, since we’re pretty sure from the beginning that Frank will survive whatever ordeal lies before him. Yet, right after the prologue, we see Frank apparently dying in a French jail cell some time earlier, being sprung by FBI agent Carl Hanratty to be extradited to the US for his crimes.

Although we see Frank in the prologue, the first character we meet in the movie proper is Hanratty. We watch him deal with uncooperative French authorities, and then we discover Frank rotting in his jail cell, and see Hanratty try to guage the seriousness of Frank’s illness (he is, after all, the world’s greatest con-man). Once Hanratty is convinced that Frank is not faking his illness, he orders him moved to the prison infirmary, where Frank, although actually ill, nevertheless tries to escape, before being caught again and handed over to Hanratty.

Why does the narrative start here? Why not start at the beginning of Frank’s story, why start it at what is, we will eventually find, the beginning of it’s fourth act? (Hanratty’s journey from France to the US with Frank will form a flash-forward act-break, and movie-time will catch up to it at the end of the fourth act.) Well, this first scene accomplishes many things, some of which it does quite subtly. First, it tells us that, for all the high-spirited hijinx which will ensue, Frank’s story will eventually have its end in arrest and humiliation — that is, his rebellion against authority will fail. (Hanratty even tells Frank several times during the movie that he knows his story will end with him in jail.) Second, it shows us, in advance, that Hanratty, although he is the dogged spirit of The Law itself, cares more about Frank than the rest of "Authority" does (which is why Spielberg introduces him battling with the French authorities — he wants us to know that Hanratty is not one of "them" but one of "us"). Third, it tells us, right up top, that Tom Hanks is in the movie, playing Hanratty — which is actually helpful, since he won’t turn up again for another half-hour and won’t have any real impact on the narrative for another hour. That is, it tells us: keep an eye on this Hanratty guy, his story and Frank’s are inextricably intertwined.

Next we see Frank attending a dinner in honor of his father at the Rotary Club. Frank Sr gets up and, for a speech, tells a story: two mice, he says, fall in a bucket of cream — one drowns, and the other keeps swimming and swimming until he turns the cream to butter and climbs out. The "two mice" story will be referred to many times during the movie. Frank Sr defines himself as the second mouse, the one who survives, but we will see by the end that, in fact, Frank Sr is the first mouse. Who, then, is the second mouse? Who keeps swimming until he can escape? That, we will learn, is Frank Jr, and, in a way, Catch Me If You Can is a story about Frank and his father as those two mice — one inexorably sinks, while the other learns to survive — and the narrative draws its considerable emotional impact from the tragedy of a fallen father and his survivor son.

(While Frank Sr delivers his speech, Frank peels the label off a soda bottle — peeling labels will become a preoccupation for Frank, and provide one of the movie’s best visual jokes.)

We discover Frank Sr at the peak of his success — he is a respected member of the community and king for a day. He’sgot a wife he adores and a son who openly admires him. A WWII veteran, Frank Sr could have been one of the soldiers in Saving Private Ryan — he married a beautiful French maiden from a town he had helped liberate. Frank Sr is, essentially, the postwar American dream, just waiting to get smashed to smithereens on the rocks of the 1960s, and Spielberg treats his life with unusual solemnity and respect — he wants us to see everything that Frank Sr has, the better we will feel it when it is all taken away from him.

Next thing we know, Frank Sr is roping Frank into a little con game — he wants Frank to come with him into the city, posing as his chauffer, to help con the bank into lending him some money. He even cons a clothing-store clerk into opening early and lending Frank a black suit for the occasion. And so we see that Frank Sr’s success is a sham, a facade — the postwar American dream is leveraged to the hilt and due for a serious correction. Frank Sr, with his actions, demonstrates to his son that success is nothing but appearances — the only way a regular guy can "make it" in the American system is through subterfuge and bedazzlement. In addition to the "two mice" story, the movie offers another parable — the reason the Yankees always win, says Frank Sr, is not because of Mickey Mantle (that is, merit) but because the other team can’t take their eyes off the pinstripes (that is, bedazzlement). Authority, the movie suggests, is nothing but deception — there is no real authority. Beyond that of the father, of course — this being Spielberg, after all.

Next thing we know, Frank’s family have lost their house and their car, and Frank’s mother is having an affair with Frank’s superior at the Rotary — "authority" is hitting Frank Sr from every possible angle — the government, the banks, even the elders at his business club. (Mom buys Frank’s silence with a handful of cash — which she, it seems, has gotten from the Rotary guy, and which Frank is happy to take, despite his horror at catching his mother in the act of adultery.)

Spielberg never suggests that Frank Sr has any responsibility for his downfall; he keeps us squarely in the point-of-view of Frank Jr — he worships Frank Sr, so we do too, and curse and gnash our teeth at the nefarious machinations of those who conspire to keep him down. (After all, it’s one thing for a bank to deny a loan to an insolvent businessman, it’s another thing entirely when the Rotary chairman starts nailing your wife — that’s getting a little too personal.)

In the blink of an eye, Frank’s father and mother are getting divorced — now lawyers, and Frank’s mother’s mother, are getting in on the act of humiliating Frank Sr. Having lost his house, his car and his wife, Frank Sr is now about to lose his son — and, to make everything much worse, the lawyer insists that Frank Jr make the decision to stay with his father or his mother. The decision, it seems, would be an easy one for Frank to make — he loves his father and thinks his mother a whore — but the mere fact that it has come to this drives Frank round the bend. Authority — in this instance, a lawyer — is insisting that Frank, and no one else, sign the document that will destroy his family.

It is too much, and the deep trauma of the moment causes a schism in Frank’s personality. He doesn’t sign the document; he can’t. Instead he flees the scene, never to return. And so we see that the first act of Catch Me If You Can is about the dissolution of Frank’s family; he will spend the rest of the movie trying to put that family together — and failing to do so. What he achieves instead will mark his maturation from boy to man.


8 Responses to “Spielberg: Catch Me If You Can part 1”
  1. johnnycrulez says:

    This movie goes by at a breakneck speed, too. It’s crazy.

  2. swan_tower says:

    The one-two punch of this film and Gangs of New York were what reminded me that Leonardo diCaprio can act.

    Which has nothing to do with the topic at hand, but it’s the first thing I tend to think of when either film comes up.

    • Todd says:

      Try him in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and This Boy’s Life.

      • swan_tower says:

        I’d heard good things about Gilbert Grape — not familiar with the other one — but it isn’t my kind of film. It wasn’t that I didn’t think he could act, though; just that his body of work was kind of trending in a downward direction for a while there. It was nice to be reminded he doesn’t suck.

    • robjmiller says:

      It’s also the introduction of Amy Adams. From what I remember she’s great in this film.

  3. 55seddel says:

    This is my 3rd favorite Spielberg Film

  4. curt_holman says:

    “the postwar American dream is leveraged to the hilt and due for a serious correction.”

    Good thing THAT’ll never happen again!

    You were probably going mention this, but I associate this movie with the part of the Spielberg “legend” in which he snuck onto the Universal lot as a teenager. I’m kind of fuzzy on the actual details, but in the retelling, the incident seems to have a little con-artist chutzpah.

    Catch Me if You Can also has a great musical theme and opening credits:

    … which were satirized on ‘The Simpsons,’ with the parents chasing the kids.

    • stormwyvern says:

      Actually, the “Simpsons” parody was the opposite of how you remembered it. Homer and Marge wanted to get away for a vacation without the kids and ended up being chased around by Bart and Lisa.