One of the more underrated film in Steven Spielberg’s long career, Catch Me If You Can is an adaptation of the autobiography of Frank Abnegale (Leonardo DiCaprio), a confidence trickster who claims to have amassed millions of dollars before he turned nineteen, all while being pursued by FBI Agent Joseph Shea, who is fictionalised here as Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks). Spielberg crafts this into one of the most resonant father-son dramas in his body of work, positioning Frank between his actual father, Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken) and Carl as his adoptive father. It’s also arguably Spielberg’s most resonant period piece, charting a particularly evocative vision of the relationship between the generation who fought in World War II, and the generation, like Spielberg himself, who grew up in the shadow of that conflict.
More specifically, Catch Me If You Can plays as a spiritual and stylistic sequel to Saving Private Ryan. In the opening scenes, which details Carl rescuing Frank from a French prison in 1967, Spielberg reverts back to the blue tinting of Saving Private Ryan and his most manic, hyperactive and hand-held shots since the attack on Normandy, in what is also his first scene set in France since his WWII epic too. Rather than focusing on the war itself, however, Spielberg considers how its propulsive energy was channelled into the picaresque scheming, strategizing and hustling of a post-war generation desperate to make sense of a new world. In his classic cinema books, Gilles Deleuze posited that WWII marked a break between a cinema based on movement and a cinema based on time. In practice, this meant that post-war protagonists, especially male protagonists, often found themselves reaching for an action they couldn’t complete, and were therefore doomed to witness their own debilitation in an intensified temporal field. Frank fights against that transition with every fibre of his being, reaching back to increasingly extravagant forms of pre-war movement to propel his future.
Frank gets his cues from his father, Frank Sr., who is an even more transitional figure, since he actually fought in the war. There’s a clear propulsive throughline from Frank Sr.’s time in France to his life back in America, since he met his wife (and Frank’s mother) while he was stationed in the French countryside. While Frank Sr. presumably fought in many battles, his real conquest came with his decision to woo Paula (Nathalie Baye) despite not speaking a word of French, along with his determination to “not leave France without her.” Their courtship peaked his wartime flow, while the story of their courtship became critical to his identity back in America, where he repeats it at every chance. This story is all that Frank Sr. really has to show for himself, so he gradually works it into a series of confidence tricks, all of them wrapped up in the manic movement and self-presentation of 1930s screwball cinema. No surprise, then, that his first con involves scamming a suit on the guise of visiting a veteran’s funeral, nor that Frank quickly learns his cons and reaches back to that primal French moment with his own first trick: posing as a teacher in a French class, despite the fact there’s a substitute teacher present, and planning a class outing to a French bread factory in Trenton.
In the process, WWII transforms from a discrete historical event to a long con, an illusion that it’s possible to maintain the manic momentum and movement of the pre-war era. This process devolves quicker for Frank Sr. than it does for Frank, since he’s older and less flexible, as Paula recognises by asking him for a divorce at the end of the first act. Yet while this decelerates Frank Sr., it galvanises Frank into a new flow, as if he now has to take the burden of all that WWII momentum upon his own shoulders. Faced with the unbearable prospect of having to choose which parent to live with, he flees the house, runs to the train station, and books a ticket to Grand Central, as Spielberg cuts to our first encounter with Hanks since the opening scenes, thereby cementing Frank’s primal burst of energy, which generates all his scams to come, as the forensic epicentre of the FBI investigation. Meanwhile, Frank Sr. settles into the limited momentum of a postal service job, and diverges so drastically from Frank that he eventually dies by slipping down the stairs at Grand Central while trying to make a train.
Before that happens, however, Spielberg takes us into the main part of the film, which plays as his answer to Goodfellas. More than any film in his career to date, this extended second act unfolds as a sustained montage sequence, as Frank cycles through every form of upward mobility available in the posr-war years, concerned less with any one trajectory than with maintaining an overall buoyancy and resilience. Most of his cons are simply about managing this flow (or as he calls it, “the float”), beginning and ending with a sustained Pan Am scam that sees him build an entire airborne identity before he even leaves the ground. During these sequences, Spielberg starts to adopt more exotic camera angles and intensify his tracking-shots in both length and speed, while cluttering his mise-en-scenes with so much frenetic movement that no space has a fixed point of focus for any length of time. Rather than succumb to Deleuze’s time-image, Spielberg and Frank unleash an dramatic excess of motion.
Beyond a certain point, however, regular mobility is no longer enough to satisfy Frank’s yearning for a pre-war flow, so he moves from regular impersonation to celebrity impersonation, seizing on James Bond as the figure who best straddles pre-war and post-war style. He fashions himself after Bond, rents out an Aston Martin, and is so successful that a magazine dubs him the “James Bond of the skies.” After a while, he starts to impersonate both Bond and Fleming, creator and character, as this desire for movement exceeds his own individual motivations and becomes a kind of primal encounter with the media ecology of the time. The longest tracking-shot in the film is reserved for the pinnacle of this need to be both on and behind the camera, and follows Frank into a movie theatre, where he communes with himself through the screen, challenging it to rival the pre-war movement he’s made his own.
Of course, Frank is also confronting a movie screen that has already moved on from the screwball world he’s invoking, and this fractures his persona as the film proceeds, producing the role that more than any other marks the cusp between DiCaprio’s early and late style. Spielberg is brilliant at directing children and adolescents, and Frank is basically a big child for much of this film, which results in one of DiCaprio’s least mannered and most authentic performances. At the same time, though, the cons propel him into the hyperactive artifice that we’ve come to associate with the later Leo, especially since Hanks offers up a self-effacing performance, and tends to be occluded compositionally, nearly always relegated to the edge of the frame or the dark corners of Spielberg’s mise-en-scenes. That leaves room for DiCaprio to command all of the roles, and turn the film into a rotation of manic movements that collective rehearse the late style he would adopt over the next twenty years – classical in the manner of pre-war motion-driven cinema, but palpably articificial in that classicism too.
The artificiality of this late style coincides with Frank’s deceleration, as he reaches for increasingly flamboyant gestures to maintain his manic flow. These peak with him playing “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby,” the anthem of Bringing Up Baby (and of screwball more generally) at his wedding, by which stage the FBI have started to tighten the screws. Spielberg cuts from this raucous neo-screwball scene to a shot of Frank hesitant, midway up a flight of stairs, caught in the light of Carl’s arriving car, frozen in one position for the very first time in the film. Before this point, Carl has been an incentive for movement, but from here he intensifies Frank’s deceleration by identifying and sympathising with it. Where Frank is the children of divorcees, Carl himself is divorced, so the men gradually settle into the same melancholy post-war groove, calling each other on Christmas Eve to share their loneliness.
Yet this only propels Frank into one last bid for movement, momentum and manic speed. In his final scam for Pan Am, he develops a fraudulent flight assistant’s program, which Spielberg captures in a convoy shot of him leading a train of stewardesses through an airport. More than any other, this shot pre-empts the intensity of Leo’s later work, although here it’s simply the precursor to two more overt efforts to draw on the propulsion of WWII. First, Frank suggests a truce with Carl, like the one that ended the war, and then, at the moment when his scams reach their largest possible circumference, he retreats to the village in France where his parents originally met. By the time Carl meets him there for another Christmas Eve communion, Leo’s acting style has become positively operatic, more European than American, before deflating with his capture, his brutal imprisonment in France and the revelation that Frank Sr. has died at Central Station. To cap it all off, he receives this last piece of news while he is handcuffed on a plane from France to New York, shacked to his seat in a melancholy echo of the Pan Am mobility that he commanded only a couple of months before.
This prompts Frank’s last and most drastically literal line of flight. Retreating to the bathroom to grieve, he unscrews the toilet, disappears into the structure of the plane, and jumps out the bottom when it lands, making his way across the tarmac as Carl looks on incredulously from his window. As his summative scam, this brings Frank back to the traumatic devolution of his own family, and the post-war family unit generally, as we abruptly cut to him gazing in the window of his mother’s new house, where only her new daughter registers him outside. What Mark Fisher described as the modernist melancholy of air travel now segues into this fractured family unit, as Frank finds himself caught between police cars arriving in the background and the fantasy of a domestic life that no amount of momentum can rescue post-war. Spielberg’s capacity for nostalgic sentimentality works wonders in this moment, as Frank is reflected in the rearview mirror of the police car as his mother finally looks out her window.
The film now ends with two possible outcomes for the post-war generation. We have the dystopian outcome, which sees Frank consigned to a fate worse than prison – an office job, the spiral of drudging downward mobility, since Carl decides he’s better off working for the FBI than being locked up. Of course, Frank can escape any time he desires, but the fact of escaping, and the buoyancy of escaping, is more important than the destination, so he chooses to make his line of flight in the middle of an office day, despite the fact that Carl will be away the next weekend. Spielberg visualises this line of flight as an endless airport tunnel, which becomes a conduit between his two visions of post-war mobility once Carl turns up, confronts Frank with his decision, but refuses to apprehend him then and there. Instead, he challenges him to see his job at the FBI as offering a new kind of flow, and a new kind of flight.
This ushers in the “utopian” ending of the film, as Frank not only prospers at the FBI, but puts his skill set to use by designing checks and other financial transactions that are capable of thwarting con artists like himself. By the end of the film, we learn that he’s married, with “three sons” and a “quiet life in the Midwest,” although there’s an unsettling edge to Frank’s success that Spielberg’s sentimentality can’t quite assuage. For Frank ultimately feels like a precursor to the quaternary industries that were booming when the film came out in 2002, and which feel even more powerful in our world twenty years later – sectors like marketing, consulting, human resources and management expertise. Time and again, Frank removes labels from objects, and reapplies them to other objects, suggesting that his real skill set lies somewhere between relentless self-branding and officious administration (we glimpse the latter when he briefly cons his way into a hospital management job). In that sense, he’s an ancestor of Jordan Belfort just as much as Leo’s performance pre-empts the late style of The Wolf of Wall Street – the only way to finally satiate his need for movement is to pioneer a neoliberal economy that subsists on nothing but inane movement, endless and empty flow.