Spielberg: Catch Me If You Can part 4

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In Act I of Catch Me If You Can, Frank Abagnale sees his family destroyed by Authority. In Act II, he tries to get his family back again by subverting the very idea of Authority. In Act III, he tries to build a new family, and — sort of — "go straight"at the same time. Authority won’t let him get away with that, and we will find in Act IV that Frank has no choice but to capitulate to Authority — join it — and thus grow into a man.

Act IV begins, as Act III did, with Frank’s antagonist Hanratty in pursuit of his quarry. Shamed — twice — by Frank’s shenanigans, and receiving no respect for his hard work from his superiors, Hanratty nevertheless tracks Frank to a small town in France, where he catches him in the act of printing up his fake payroll checks. This confrontation takes place, of course, on Christmas.

Hanratty is now more of a father to Frank than Frank Sr ever was, certainly more of a disciplinarian. The last time Frank saw Frank Sr, he begged him "tell me to stop!" But Frank Sr was either too proud of his son’s accomplishments — such as they were — or too weak, too close to drowning in his figurative bucket of cream, to stop Frank. So now Hanratty is doing what Frank Sr would not — forcing Frank to stop. Authority has two meanings in Catch — it is both phonies who wear suits and use their position to intimidate people, and it is a father who loves you and wants you to grow up and be "good." (Republicans often run as the "good father," the stern disciplinarian with your best interests at heart, but the Bush administration is clearly made up of the other kind of Authority.)

And so the movie catches up to its flashback structure and, at the two-hour mark, begins to "move forward." Hanratty gets Frank out of France and back to the US. On the plane, he tells Frank that his father is dead. This news brings Frank to another crisis: now he can never accomplish his goal of getting his family back together.

He makes a daring escape from the plane when it lands (only a little more daring and outrageous than the one he made in real life) and dashes to his mother’s house. Peering in the window (it’s Christmas time, yet again, that sacred time of family and togetherness), his gaze is met by a little girl’s — his mother, Frank sees, has her own family now, leaving him — literally — out in the cold with his nose pressed against the glass.

Completely out of options, Frank willingly surrenders to Hanratty. The movie is now at 2:03:00, and it feels like yet another act break. But Frank’s final failure of family is only part of his journey toward his new family and his new father.

Yet another Christmas later (another Spielberg rarity — a narrative that slows down as it nears its end), Hanratty goes to see Frank in prison (where he, like Frank Sr before his death, delivers letters). Frank helps Hanratty with a case, and Hanratty suddenly understands that Frank is something more valuable than a criminal — he is an expert, something that has been sorely lacking in Hanratty’s work at the FBI up to now. When Hanratty sees the level of Frank’s expertise, we see in his eyes the same sort of pride we saw in Frank Sr’s — Frank, Hanratty sees, is, has always been a true authority. Hanratty, who has always been stumbling through his job surrounded by idiots, sees before him someone who knows ten times more about his job than he himself does.

Frank Sr could not openly support Frank’s expertise, his authority, but Hanratty openly celebrates it. He gets Frank out of prison and gives him a job — working for him at the FBI. Frank trades his prison cell for another small room with another door with another label — "CHECK FRAUD." Itching against the label and despairing in his new position of authority, Frank has no choice but to flee — again.

He makes it as far as an airline terminal, in his pilot’s uniform, ready to go — but where? He has no family, no hope of family, and no friends. He’s based his adolescence on a lie and now he’s arrived at his adulthood with nothing.

Hanratty meets him at the airport and reveals that he knew that Frank would try to flee this night. He lets him go, tells him he won’t be chased. This is, of course, the final test of fatherhood — letting your son go, giving him your trust.

Back in Act II, Frank pressed his first fake check into the Gideon Bible in his hotel room, but we were never given the idea that he ever used it for anything but check-flattening. Had he read it at some point, he would have come across the story of the prodigal son. The prodigal son is loved by his father more than his faithful son, because the faithful son never had any idea other than faithfulness, while the prodigal son went out, saw the world, and returned to the father’s side. The faithful son’s love is granted but the prodigal son’s love is earned. Hanratty at this point clearly loves Frank as a son, a son he has had a firm hand in shaping, and knows that to earn Frank’s love he must give him the chance to leave.

Frank returns, of course, to take his place by his new father’s side. And so the "real fake," the boy who skated through uncounted aliases and costumes on his journey to adulthood, has finally arrived at his identity — he is Hanratty’s prodigal son. He is Authority now, true, but his authority is as real as it gets, and earned.


3 Responses to “Spielberg: Catch Me If You Can part 4”
  1. blagh says:

    (Republicans often run as the “good father,” the stern disciplinarian with your best interests at heart, but the Bush administration is clearly made up of the other kind of Authority.)

    You can almost (if not quite technically) talk about them in the past tense now! Isn’t that fantastic?

  2. quitwriting says:

    Another great retelling of the story of the prodigal son, and a great break-down of a great movie as always. I really enjoy getting a look at the sub-text of the movies that I may have missed on the first, second or even third viewing.

    If you ever lack for movies to review, I’d be happy to recommend a few.

    • Todd says:

      It is difficult to entirely avoid cliches in screenwriting. The trick is to employ them in unexpected new contexts — to stand them on their head, as it were, which is one of Spielberg’s key talents.