Catch Me If You Can
As they say, the best laid plans...Well last night I had intended to go see The Two Towers
(which I originally intended to see on Sunday, but I did not feel very well, so...); I arrived at the theater fairly early to find myself waiting in quite a long line for the 7pm screening. I got all the way to the front of the line, just one person away from the ticket window, when the surly 16-year old girl working the ticketbooth pasted a crude sign to the window informing the myself, and the mass of people behind me, that the show was sold out. So I ended up buying a ticket to the new Spielberg flick, Catch Me If You Can
; at first, skeptically eyeing the gaggle of pre-teens in the lobby cooing over Leonardo DiCaprio, I had considered just sneaking into The Two Towers
(the usherette was not even paying attention) and displacing someone. Who could it hurt? I'm sure that I would only be taking the seat of some geek who had already seen it five times since last Wednesday, and if I got caught, I could always con my way out of the situation. How apt, instead, I chickened out, and went into the theater for the Spielberg film.
I was actually delighted with my choice, it turns out that Spielberg has created the most delightfully shallow film since Ocean's 11
, a light, frothy, cat and mouse game which I mostly enjoyed from end to end. Inspired by the true life exploits of Frank W. Abagnale Jr., a teenaged con-man who defrauded both banks and corporations in the US and Europe out of several million dollars in the mid to late 1960s by taking on a variety of roles in an effort to cash fraudulent checks, including an airline pilot for Pan-Am; a supervising physician in an Atlanta hospital;?
and an assistant attorney general in Louisiana, all before he turned 20 years old (just an interesting side note, that as a youth in the mid to late 1960s, Abagnale, who could have been some sort of counter-culture icon, impersonates establishment people with auras of authority; in addition to roles listed above, Abagnale also models himself after James Bond in Goldfinger
and plays the role both as a substitute teacher and a Secret Service Agent; his style of dress, and his tastes seem more in tune with a youth of the early 60s or even the 1950s, I mean he learns how to fake being a doctor from watching episodes of Dr. Kildare
and a lawyer from Perry Mason
). Abagnale's personal Javert is driven, workaholic FBI agent, a bank fraud specialist named Carl Hanratty, played with a gleam in his eye (I loved his delivery of the one, PG-13 alloted usage of the word "fuck"), as well as a Bostonian accent that fades in and out, by Tom Hanks.
As the film unspooled, beginning with the first, tolerable John Williams score in a great while, an ersatz, jazz influenced score (one critic I read last night referred to the score as "ersatz Mancini," which is also very apt) and the great, animated credits sequence by Agnes Deygas, I was reminded of a variety of films: Rat Pack capers, the Pink Panther
series (and early 60s Blake Edwards in general), and even Goodfellas
, because, quite frankly, Abagnale's expertly detailed shennanigans seemed like a lot of fun, and are very appealing. Spielberg, and his screen-writer Jeff Nathanson, helpfully dole out a "moral warning" to the audience by first presenting Abagnale after he has been caught, first on a recreation of the 1970s gameshow, To Tell the Truth
(an ironic choice of gameshows, I wonder if it really happened?), and more importantly, a rat-hole French prison (are there any other kinds, especially in the movies) where Abagnale was kept pending his extradition to the United States (we later learn that he was held in the cell for about two years). But after that, it's back to the fun, fun, fun, well, ok, with some less fun, but infrequent, interludes back to the present-day story.
Frank is the son of an apparently upper, middle-class family which apparently does the upper, middle-class thing: going to private schools, hobnobbing with civic leaders at the Rotary Club, living in a spacious house with his parents, Frank Sr. (played wonderfully by Christopher Walken) and his French-born mother, Paula (French actress Nathalie Baye). But, like almost everything in his life (both present and future), it's all an illusion. Frank Sr. is in trouble with the IRS; he is a huckster at heart, who appreciates the worth of appearances in post-war America, but who finally can't bring himself to go all the way with his schemes. Frank Sr. sells his nice car, his large house (moving his family into a cramped apartment), puts his kid into a public school, and eventually, even loses his wife to his "best friend." The few scenes of marital bliss that Spielberg allows the audience to witness (which includes a bit of soft shoe on the part of Christopher Walken, always a welcome sight) as well as the attendant story of Frank and Paula's meeting in Montrichard, during WWII, gives off an idealized, Romantic feeling, especially since the film also presents this as Frank Jr.'s perspective. Frank Jr. has learned his lesson well; the motivations for his criminal pursuits are simple, equating material success (or at least the appearance of material success) with personal/familial happiness, Frank sets out to gain wealth as quickly as possible, utilizing his "talents," and get his parents back together, the quintessential fantasy of divorced children (and a recurring theme in several Spielberg films).
After a few, rather comical, failed attempts at check forgery, Frank decides to put his father's wisdom about appearances to good usage. Essentially bluffing his way into the role of a Pan-Am pilot, he finds that life gets ridiculously easy when you are wearing a uniform, especially when his act is bolstered by the information he gleans from sweet-talking the many young women he meets. Soon, he's cashing forged payroll checks, living in swanky hotels, bedding stewardesses, and traversing the country for free, having the time of his life. Of course, the increasing elaboration of his cons attracts the attention of the FBI, who assign Hanratty, and his squad (initially a bunch of guys who clearly don't want to be doing this job, or are inexperienced in fieldwork), to apprehend the then unknown thief. Hanratty and Frank Jr. even cross paths; Hanratty, tracks Frank down in LA, but the charismatic Frank, wearing a nice suit, with some quick thinking and even quicker talking (not to mention luck) momentarily bluffs Hanratty into believing that Frank is in the Secret Service, allowing him time to escape. This rather bold bluff humiliates Hanratty, who from then on out vows to capture Frank.
Hanratty is a rather underwritten character; we learn little of his personal motivations or backstory. Instead, Spielberg relies on Hank's star persona to imbue his character with a sense of affability and decency. The narrative sets up Hanratty as possessing a special connection with Frank Jr., a connection with filial dimensions that mirror those of Frank Sr. (by the point of the film where Hanratty displaces Frank Sr. as Frank Jr.'s father figure, they are even dressed in similar ways). Frank Sr. clearly represent the "bad" father. In my opinion, he clearly had an idea what his son was up to (how could he not, who has ever heard of a 17 year old airline pilot), but he turned a blind eye, even lying to the FBI, not because he truly loved his son (which I actually think he did) but because he saw his son as a way to pursue his bitter, personal vendetta against the government.
As for Hanratty, while at first motivated purely by professional duty and then by a bruised ego, he soon develops a sense of admiration for Frank Jr.'s ingenuity, as well as a kind of empathy (I guess a somewhat fatherly feeling) because he's a kid from a broken home, though this point is left largely unspoken. Again, Spielberg primarily relies upon Hank's acting and star persona to signify Hanratty as a possible father figure for Frank Jr. The narrative itself provides fairly minimal personal interaction, at least on screen; each Christmas, the truly lonely Frank Jr. reaches out to his pursuer, the workaholic, and apparently equally lonely Hanratty, by calling him at his office, in scenes reminiscent of countless crime dramas. However, what starts as possibly part of a game, develops personal dimensions as the two characters sort of open up to each other. Eventually, once Frank Jr. is arrested in France, it is Hanratty who takes responsibility for him.
And it is Hanratty who ultimately offers Frank Jr. his chance at redemption, not once but twice. But first, Frank's illusion has to irrevocably shattered; upon hearing of his father's accidental death en route back to the US, Frank escapes from custody and flees to his mother's new house to witness a Christmas time scene straight out of Norman Rockwell: his remarried mother living in material bliss with her new husband, a former friend of his father (played by the always bronzed James Brolin), and a new daughter. A scene which Frank Jr. is pointedly excluded from, both metaphorically and literally, by a frosted pane of glass.
Recaptured and sent to prison, it is Hanratty who gives Frank another chance; using his extensive expertise in check forgery to help the FBI in return for some limited freedom. Interestingly, Frank's job is depicted as more prison-like than jail itself (if I'm not mistaken, there is a close-up of Leonardo DiCaprio with the shutter blinds casting bar-like shadows on his face): working in a drab environment, wearing cheap suits, and drudging through piles and piles of casework. Is it no wonder that Frank again becomes restless and buys himself a new pilot's uniform, intending to flee, only to be confronted by Hanratty at the airport, who decides to let the boy go, having and almost fatherly faith in his ultimate return. This being a Spielberg film, it's almost a foregone conclusion that Frank will return and vindicate Hanratty's faith in him, but not before Spielberg draws out the inevitable conclusion with some suspense tricks and false endings (one of my few complaints was how drawn out this sequence was, even the score got serious at this point). Frank's return is actually understated, he sits down at a table and helps Hanratty with some evidence. The camera pulls back and titles appear on screen informing the viewer of Frank Abagnale's future success with both the FBI and private sector, becoming a happily married family man, a successful millionaire, and lifelong friend of Carl Hanratty. What did they say about lives having second acts