A man’s alter ego is nothing more than his favorite image of himself.
— Frank W. Abagnale, Catch Me If You Can
Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio) first appears in Catch Me If You Can on the game show, To Tell the Truth. Three men in pilots’ uniforms stand up before a live audience and panel of questioners — including insert shots of the real Kitty Carlisle and Joe Garagiola — each proclaims his identity, not as a Pan Am pilot, but as a man who pretended to be a Pan Am pilot, scamming free trips, hotel rooms, and millions of dollars in checks cashed, from 1964-1967. “Some people,” says Frank #1, “consider me to be the world’s greatest impostor.”
In this semi-recreated tv moment, Frank appears an entertaining oddity, slightly shy and wholly charming, more or less pleased to be celebrated as a liar and a thief, a man who got over (as a teenager, during most of his exploits) on all sorts of economic and legal systems, around the globe. He also appears as Leo DiCaprio, at his most completely disarming best. He’s Leo but he’s not, he’s back but he’s new again, he’s a celebrity playing someone who’s playing a celebrity. The circles of truth and image are wholly beguiling.
It makes an especially perverse sense that this first moment takes place on To Tell the Truth. For Steven Spielberg’s zippy new film is indeed about the kind of “truth” that might only be apprehended in (and as) its telling.
Based on Abagnale’s autobiography, Catch Me If You Can also celebrates Frank’s insidious intelligence, and treats his crimes as comedy, instances of holes in the system. He’s chased throughout by a single, composite FBI agent, Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks). This dogged but amiable pursuer comes to admire his quarry as much as he sees his own honor at stake in the capture. Hanratty is something of a father figure, underlining Frank’s boyishness and insecurity as well as his ingenuity and charisma, as they develop — over years — a relationship premised on mutual regard and, to an extent, affection.
This relationship is perhaps most interesting for its cinematic aspects. During Frank’s escapades, they rarely appear on screen together, speaking by phone (Frank: “I want to call a truce”; Hanratty: “There is no truce. You will be caught, and you will go to prison”), occasionally meeting or at least passing one another in crowded spaces, like airports and hotel lobbies. Their lack of shared space never detracts from their weird intimacy, their dance taking them in parallel movements across similarly hyper-stylized interiors and broad exteriors. And yet, for all their self-imposed distances (partly because DiCaprio and Hanks seem genuinely fond of one another and despite Hanks’ silly accent), they forge a stronger, more deeply resonating link than any that Frank manages with anyone else, save his father, Frank Sr. (an affecting Christopher Walken).
The film proposes that its young hero — like so many in the Spielberg pantheon — is haunted by childhood trauma (his parents’ divorce) and motivated by the desire to remake his family (if he can’t exactly have the original one, he’s willing to marry his own lovely girl, who is ten years his senior and believes he’s a doctor and her own age). The movie invites you to like Frank, to sympathize with his (relative) plight, and Leo-as-Frank’s charm does go a long way toward this end. It also helps that he’s surrounded by brightly colored, thinly drawn supporting characters, so that he looks alternately determined and brainy, naïve and vulnerable, and always the most fully realized fellow in the room.
Truth be told, there’s little reason not to like the movie’s Frank. The endearingly self-conscious To Tell the Truth moment occurs in 1978, after he has paid his debt to society — served time in prison and worked for the FBI as an expert on forgery — and so, his desire to please, to amuse and seduce, seems a sign of his rehabilitation. He never meant to hurt anyone, see? Here, he shows he has achieved an ultimate celebrity, performing himself well enough that his audience believes and desires him, the product, the performance, the untruth that passes as truth-enough. And, he’s getting paid.
This is important for Frank, whose sense of abandonment as a child has everything to do with money. The film flashes back to show a scene or two when Frank Sr. and Paula (an underused Nathalie Baye) were happy (in particular, a Christmas memory, when they dance blithely to Judy Garland’s “Embraceable You,” while Frank the son watches a spreading red wine stain on the carpet — sign of his imminent rage for order or his premonition of domestic disaster?). Frank also recalls a few scenes when mom’s bringing home dad’s Lodge associates (James Brolin, for one).
Her reasons for betrayal remain mostly offscreen (it’s her son’s story, after all), but his understanding of it begins with dad’s failed business and his mother’s dissatisfaction (she went looking for work, and found comfort in more traditionally supportive men, leaving Frank Jr. to make his own birthday dinner — pancakes). When Paula leaves him, Frank Sr. spends his ensuing years yearning for her, telling and retelling the fabulous story of their meeting in a French village when he was a U.S. troop in WWII: “And I turned to my buddies and said, ‘I will not leave France without her.'” In other words, Sr. is at once a profoundly romantic and haplessly tragic model for Jr.
The son’s reaction to the turmoil seems almost reasonable: he wants to maintain control and garner respect from all who wander within his vicinity, even the most insignificant, never-gonna-see-em-again extras. Frank actually stumbles onto his first con accidentally, though in the film’s organization, it seems fated. Harassed by students at his new school (the family’s moved to a lower-rent neighborhood where his school uniform looks out of place), Frank seizes a moment, posing as a substitute French teacher in the hostile classroom. He finds immediately that the rewards are huge: instant respect, a sense of superiority and self-control, and approval from would-have-been peers. That Frank Sr. laughs in approval following a visit to the principal’s office (Jr. has maintained the charade for a week) is no small thing: the boy has earned this all-important sanction just by being smarter than everyone else.
While this reductive framework — sad and lonely kid only wants to win back his mother and father, awww — might seem a far cry from today’s political bent, toward trying (and punishing) kids as adults, the film hardly makes a radical reassessment of legal or moral issues. In fact, its timing seems oddly ideal: this is a movie about a kid who practices playing James Bond in the mirror, goes by the moniker “Barry Allen” (the Flash’s “real” name), and who messes with airlines, banks, hospitals, schools, and the FBI, all institutions currently bound up in various charges of corruption, scandal, and greed. Frank looks like a near-perfect people’s champion: if only he was sticking it to WorldCom and Saddam, his target list would be complete.
In order to maintain his sympathetic status, Frank’s abuses are limited to systems, easy not to care about. His dallying with women is presented in an equally lighthearted manner, though none appears too offended by his fooling (as if he really is that terrific in bed). Among these conquests are a hooker played by Jennifer Garner with elaborate hair (“Don’t be scared. Make me an offer”) and Frank’s fiancée to be (and then not be), Brenda (Amy Adams). When they meet, she’s a candy striper, so sweet and innocent that she’s wearing braces; seemingly inspired, he forges a degree from Harvard Med and watches a few episodes of Dr. Kildare, then poses as a doctor. Later, trying to impress her lawyer father (Martin Sheen) in an effort to reunite their estranged family, he pretends to have a law degree as well, making him ready to join the paternal firm as employee and son-in-law.
There it is again — Catch Me If You Can is rife with mythic and metaphorical dad anxieties. Whether you understand that dad as representing a federal agency, a banking establishment, a national identity (as his father does in the meeting-mom-in-France stories). When he learns his mother has remarried, and has a little girl and nice house to live in, Frank is as upset by his father’s failure to mention this earlier as he is by his mother’s new life. When Other Dad Hanratty shows up to take him in (again, for he’s been caught and escaped before), Frank begs to get in the car. The truth he wants so badly to be told his way — the way he’s heard it before — doesn’t exist.
Catch Me If You Can has a few extra endings, as has become Spielberg’s wont (A.I., Minority Report), but it has enough to say about the ways that lies and half-truths shape our expectations, much less ground our notions of family, that these excess minutes are less annoying than they might have been. By the time you see the final title cards informing you who’s doing what now, you might even be reflecting on the multiple ways that even these truths are being told. Or more significantly, what’s your stake in hearing them.