CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, starring Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio, is an entertaining comic thriller about a con man named Frank Abagnale, Jr., who impersonates an airline pilot, doctor and a lawyer and who is pursued by a relentless FBI agent. Containing some foul language and sexual situations, the soft ending to the movie seems to condone Frank's adolescent, illegal behavior, but it does have some moral, redemptive elements.
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN is a well-made, entertaining movie with one of those warm fuzzy endings that usually appeals to audiences. In a way, it is reminiscent of LES MISERABLES with a twist. The FBI/law enforcement character in this movie proves to have a kind heart, as opposed to the ruthless Gendarme Javert in LES MISERABLES who represented the law without grace.
Underneath the entertaining veneer, however, is a 1960s adolescent sensibility that condones sex and illegal activities. Thus, it is not the movie parents should show to impressionable adolescents, who are among its target audience.
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN is based on a true story about a criminal forger, con man and impersonator. In recent articles, the real Frank Abagnale, Jr. has said that he has no financial stake in the movie and that the movie does not represent his complete repentance and total abhorrence of his adolescent activities. In fact, according to the Los Angeles Times (12/06/02), “before he saw a cut of the film, he was so worried studio promotion would glorify his crimes James Bond-style that he disavowed young Frank on his business Web site. (‘I consider my past immoral, unethical and illegal. It is something I am not proud of.’)” He says he is now dedicated to teaching moral principles and repulsed by his immoral behavior during his adolescent years.
The movie opens giving away part of its ending, with FBI agent Carl Hanratty, played by Tom Hanks in a superb dramatic performance, traveling to France to extradite Abagnale back to the United States. Frank is in prison in Marseilles in 1969 for forging checks. When Carl visits Frank in the prison, Frank is so sick that he collapses. Carl calls for a doctor, and, while Carl is talking to the French police, Frank starts to escape.
Flashback to New Rochelle, New York in 1963. Frank’s father, also named Frank, is receiving an award from the Rotary Club. Christopher Walken, in one of his best roles as Frank’s father, tells a very stupid story in receiving his award, and young Frank jumps to his feet and wildly applauds. Clearly, Frank loves his father. When they get home, his father reminds him that he met Frank’s mother in France, that every eye in the platoon was on her that night in the small bistro in Montrichard, France, but he was the one who won the heart of this French beauty.
This pleasant family life quickly comes to an end, however. Frank, Sr. is under investigation for tax evasion. The family’s assets are seized, and they have to move into a small apartment. Frank is ribbed when he transfers from an elite private school to public school. To get back at the student who belittles him, Frank pretends to be a substitute French teacher and carries it off for a whole week, showing that he has talent in assuming other identities.
One day Frank comes home to find his mother leaving her bedroom with the head of the Rotary Club. Next, he comes home to find his parents in the midst of divorce proceedings. The lawyer tells him to choose which parent he wants to live with. Instead, he runs away.
Frank’s father had just given him a checkbook for his 16th birthday, so he starts bouncing checks at flophouses in New York. With his good looks and brilliant mind, Frank seduces the prettiest bank tellers and finds out the information he needs to start forging checks.
Soon, he finds out that airline checks are the easiest to pass. Therefore, he pretends to be a student reporter and interviews the manager of Pan Am Airlines. Then, he calls up Pan Am and gets himself a uniform and starts forging and passing Pan Am checks. At the same time, he has another girl every night and attracts the most beautiful women with his good looks and suave uniforms.
Before long, FBI agent Carl Hanratty is on his tail, but Frank is a brilliant paperhanger, as Carl calls him, always staying a few steps ahead of the law. When Carl does catch him one day in an apartment, Frank pretends to be a National Security agent who has just arrested Frank and leaves Carl holding an empty wallet. The FBI is embarrassed.
Frank decides to impersonate a doctor in Atlanta and watches DR. KILDARE shows on TV to learn everything he can about medicine. When his cover is blown, he travels with a nurse to her home in Louisiana. He studies for two weeks and passes the Louisiana State bar, forges an identity and gets hired as an assistant prosecutor.
Eventually, of course, as we know from the beginning of the movie, he is caught. By this time, however, Hanratty has taken a paternal interest in Frank and, after several years, has him released from jail under his care so Frank can help the FBI investigate check fraud.
Steven Spielberg is a master storyteller. Even though the ending is known from the beginning, the movie keeps you on the edge of your seat. The sex scenes, though discreet, are powerfully emotive. Leonard DiCaprio is perfect as an adolescent, and Tom Hanks has a wonderful character arc from the seemingly dull, focused FBI agent to the surrogate father of this wayward young man.
One aspect of Spielberg’s genius shows through in the visual design of the movie. From the 1960s PINK PANTHER cartoon-type opening to the garish colors of the set of TO TELL THE TRUTH to the bold settings throughout the movie, Spielberg has indelibly established this movie as a 1960s artifact. His attention to detail here is much like his work on the under-appreciated MINORITY REPORT. It is a sense of time and space that few directors have.
Although in real life, Frank says he repented of his sinful ways, the soft ending to the movie almost seems to condone Frank’s adolescent behavior, which involved, by the way, $4 million worth of forgery and no doubt left a few people destitute. The real Frank does claim that his illegal behavior was motivated in part by his mother abandoning his father, which left his father shattered. Thus, the movie does show the havoc that divorce can inflict on a child. Clearly, Frank eventually found the love of the father manifested in the hard-hearted FBI agent.
There is no doubt that Christians believe in compassion and love. The scene of Frank being captured in the small French town where his mother grew up contains a small Christmas service going on in the background. This scene highlights the grace of God, who so loved the world the He gave His only begotten Son to pay the price for each and every man and woman’s sin. In spite of the Gospel’s call for us to love our enemies, and the forgiveness that can be found alone in Jesus Christ, God’s Law is still part and parcel of God’s will for mankind. Thus, even Paul submitted to the Roman authorities, as did the other apostles, except in the rare case where Roman law conflicted with God’s Law.
The movie, therefore, lifts up love, compassion and indulgence above repentance and responsibility. Law and Grace are always united in God’s Kingdom; it is not one or the other. Although everyone who calls on Jesus to save them is redeemed, justified and saved, they still must submit to secular authorities. In the movie, not only does Frank not call out to Jesus Christ to save him, but also his punishment for serious criminal activity seems like a slap on the wrist which makes it appear as if CATCH ME IF YOU CAN is presenting a cheap form of grace. The movie does, however, show Frank making restitution for his crimes by helping the authorities capture other forgers.
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David Geffen, Jeffrey Katzenberg & Steven Spielberg
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(PaPa, C, B, LL, SS, N, A, DD, MM) Pagan "anything goes" adolescent worldview mitigated by a Christmas service, a lead character exhibiting selflessness and man doing some moral restitution for criminal activity; eight obscenities and four profanities; man dying in isolation cell, police point gun at man's head, police rough up young man, doctor gets sick after seeing boy's injured leg, and daring escapes; scene of depicted fornication, scenes of implied fornicated, woman climbs on fake doctor sitting on chair, sexual talk, prostitution, abortion discussed as having ruined a woman's life, implied adultery, mother runs away from family and marries father's best friend; upper female side nudity; alcohol use; smoking and reference to drugs; and, tax evasion, check kiting, forgery, deception, impersonation, fraud, and misrepresentation.