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Catch Me If You Can – 2002

Director Steven Spielberg
Screenplay Jeff Nathanson based on Catch Me If You Can by Frank Abagnale Jr., Stan Redding
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen, Nathalie Baye, Amy Adams, Jennifer Garner, Ellen Pompeo, Elizabeth Banks, Kaitlin Doubleday

There is a sweetness at the core to Catch Me if You Can that one doesn’t usually see when viewing a story of an outlaw on the run. It starts with the very first speech. Frank Abagnale, Sr. (Walken) gives one of the few completely unironic speeches of his career. In humbly comparing his life as a shopkeeper to that of the one little mouse that didn’t panic in a bucket of cream while receiving a rotary club honors, we see the pride and the love of his son (DiCaprio), oblivious the the crowd around him. He is in the prime of a life that is going to hell, and neither father nor son know this. They soon lose everything, but Jr. gets a birds eye view of his father’s ideas behind every attempt at righting the ship. Spielberg creates a feeling of warmth in this first act that carries us through the rest of the film. Every gimmick the son tries for the rest of the story is related to these lessons.ties back directly to these moments with his father.

Frank Sr. is a bit of a grifter. He just has different goals and makes the mistake of putting down roots. We’re seeing all of the father’s questionable decisions coming back to him. The result sees the family lose their car, their home and eventually the matriarch (Baye). This puts Frank Jr. in the position of having to choose between his parents. He chooses to run.

Spielberg smartly sets the groundwork here. He presents his mother, not as a mean person, just incompatible with her husband’s dreams. Even more wisely, we get smart casting to present Walken in a sympathetic man who sets down his roots, only to have what grows stomped on before it has grown at all.

The key moment that Frank Jr.shares with his father is when dad gives him a checkbook. This moment is presented as the entry into the “club.” He spends the rest of the story proving that he can be inside that club, no matter how hard its members try to keep him out. His father told him an honest man has nothing to fear. Father and son view this differently than most of us would. From this skewed vantage, the son promises his father that he will someday “get it all back.” We know what he means, and by the time he says it, we are rooting for him to succeed.

The one person between Frank Jr. and his goal is FBI Agent Carl Hanratty (Hanks). Hanratty is a lot like Frank Sr. He’s not taken seriously, even though he is an earnest man. His awareness of the pattern of criminal activity stirs an alarm with Carl that thus far had not been widely seen. Check fraud is an evolving form of thievery in the U.S. and Frank Jr. has figured out how to take advantage of this. Through this, he ends up becoming many things, including a pilot, a doctor, a lawyer and a very rich man. But he’s always on the run.

The dichotomy of the paths of Carl and Frank Sr. serve as a catalyst for Frank Jr. His best skill is ingenuity. When he’s presented with a challenge, he quickly works out a solution that allows him to live among the other members of “the club.” In Frank Jr.’s view, everyone is trying to hold his father down, and he will be damned if they let the same people own him the same way. Carl’s early experiences with Frank Jr. put him in an embarrassing position, but they also win the son over with his earnest demeanor. Over several Christmas phone calls, they establish a rapport.

The entire cast is on point. This film benefits from its casting choices. Hanks pushes a Brookline, Massachusetts accent, but wisely doesn’t have any long speeches to test it out to the point where we see the weakness. DiCaprio takes advantage of his waning youth to give a believable showing of someone who jumps into adult decisions while still technically a teenager. This may be the finest acting of

Spielberg works Nathanson’s script with little of the mawkishness that he shows in his earlier films. The worst we get to see is a contrived scene with Hanratty at a public laundromat and a small red coat. One wonders if it is the same obvious coat from Schindler’s List. Other than this, he manages to get to the core of each character in the most economic way possible.

The film feels like an ideal vision of high life in the 60’s. If nothing else, it’s a wonderful flight of fancy. There’s more than that going on, but the excellent sense of innocence for the decade is captured completely. There are some liberties taken with the real story, mostly centering on sympathizing with Frank, his father and the devastation of divorce. It’s a glamorization, but it is a damn good one.

It might seem a stretch to call any film by Spielberg, starring Hanks and DiCaprio, a Forgotten Gem. The point is, most of Spielberg’s films are given more credit than they deserve, then they are forgotten, until the next one arrives. The treasure of Christopher Walken is worthy enough a reason to include this in my book.

(***** out of *****)

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