It sounds funny nowadays, but there was a time when commercial pilots were treated like rockstars. Obviously it’s always taken a lot of training and testing to become a pilot, but for Frank Abagnale it was a stepping stone. 2002’s Catch Me If You Can tells some of his story, or at least it seems to, and if anyone hasn’t seen it, I highly recommend it.
The movie opens with Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio) on the game show, To Tell the Truth with two other guys claiming to be Frank Abagnale. Then it cuts to Frank in a French prison. He’s dirty, cold, sick, disheveled, and stuck. Outside in the pouring rain FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) is arguing with the local police about letting him inside so he can take Frank back to the United States. It’s very long, drawn-out, and repetitious because of the language barrier.
Then we see Frank and Carl on a commerical flight, and things go into flashback mode. As a kid, Frank lives in Bronxville, New York with his parents, where his dad, Frank, Sr. (Christopher Walken) owns a stationery business and his mom, Paula (Nathalie Bale) plays bridge with other local mothers.
It seems to be an idyllic existence, but everything is imploding, not to mention the artifice is unusually thick. Dad cons a menswear store into lending Frank a suit so he can impersonate his dad’s chaffeur at the bank. Dad also opens a checking account for his son so he can pay for things himself.
His mom isn’t exactly above the board, either, sleeping her way through the Bronxville social set. She pretends to hide it from Frank, but he knows better.
Con jobs seem to be a way of life for Frank, who, when he has to go to a public school for the first time, impersonates a substitute French teacher, and very convincingly, seeing as his mom is French. The school principal gets wise to him when he starts planning a field trip to a Trenton bread factory.
When Frank, Sr. and Paula get divorced, Frank bolts. He knows he can’t keep writing checks, and anyway, the banks won’t cash them, so he changes his birthdate on his driver’s license. Next he talks his way into getting a Pan Am pilot’s uniform and lifting the Pan Am logo from toy airplanes to forge paychecks.
Now Frank’s not only raking in money hand over fist, but when he walks down the street people look at him like he’s Bono. Never mind that he’s never flown before, let alone sat in a cockpit, and when the flight attendant asks him what he’d like to drink after takeoff, he replies, “Milk.”
Frank’s activities don’t go unnoticed, though. Carl (Tom Hanks) has been tracking him, and when he shows up at Frank’s hotel room Frank pretends to be a CIA agent named Barry Allen who’s also tracking a rogue Pan Am pilot. Carl falls for it, but only until a waiter at a diner tells him Barry Allen is the real name of the Flash. Carl realizes Frank is just a kid.
I don’t want to give too many spoilers, but suffice it to say that Frank has a way of moving on whenever Carl gets too close. He talks his way into becoming a doctor and then a lawyer, convincing the daughter of a wealthy attorney to get engaged to him. Carl, however, is never too far behind, and even a resourceful con artist like Frank Abegnale is going to run out of options. Redemption may come in a very unlikely way, however, so maybe he won’t be doomed to inhabit a prison cell for the forseeable future.
Yeah, history’s already spoiled this one for us. Frank is out, he’s married, and a lot of the security features no one knows to look for on sensitive documents are his handiwork. He’s been involved with the FBI for over forty-five years. People who know him say he’s a charismatic fellow and a good guy, so it’s not hard to imagine the spell he was able to cast over the various people he met over the years.
Catch Me If You Can is how a movie is made, and it is how a movie told in a nonlinear way should be done. It’s not trying to cram so much information and story as to be confusing but allows the audience to settle into the various settings and get to know Frank and Carl, at least as much as Frank will let us. He’s so busy running that he hasn’t stopped to acknowledge how damaged he really is because of other peoples’ choices. Frank is probably one of the nicest antiheroes to come down the pike.
The music is fantastic, too. How could it not be, seeing as John Williams wrote it? Like its story, the music is a bait and switch, always in the background but teasing us with its presence. It’s reminiscent of nineteen-sixties spy dramas in that every time light breaks on Carl a certain musical motif pops up. It’s a lot more jazzy than fans are probably familiar with, but it also hearkens back to Williams’ very early days scoring and arranging films.
Naturally, there were some liberties taken with the history. Frank was one of several children, but the movie portrays him as an only child. There were times Abagnale was nearly caught by people in the fields he was moonlighting in, such as an incident in which he was asked about his plane’s equipment by legitimate pilots. According to Esquire, Carl Hanratty was slightly based on the agent who caught Abagnale, Joseph Shea, and they were real-life friends.
Those are some of the surface differences, though. Doubts have been cast on how much of Frank’s story in Catch Me If You Can is really true just because certain dates don’t line up. The film shows the FBI’s hunt lasting for years, but according to Irish author Alan C. Logan it was only three months. Abagnale’s path to reform wasn’t so quick, either. The Pan Am pilot bit was true, though, except that it happened in 1970, one year after the movie shows Frank in prison.
Regardless of what the real story is, Catch Me If You Can is a gripping movie that messes with the head in great fashion.
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