Back when I was in graduate school, I worked on an undergraduate class on Steven Spielberg. Part of the professor’s general take dealt with all of Spielberg’s movies having to do with lost fathers and the main character going on a search to find said lost father (or being one himself). Whether or not that thesis is true in general I don’t care to guess. It is, however, certainly correct for Catch me if You Can.
Based on the true story of Frank Abagnale Jr., the film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Abagnale, a teenage con artist, and Tom Hanks as Carl Hanratty, the FBI man out to catch him. Spielberg’s direction of Jeff Nathanson’s BAFTA-nominated screenplay keeps the proceedings light even in the film’s darkest moments, and the two leads are simply outstanding.
The film begins with Frank Jr. living a nice quiet life in Westchester County with his father, Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken), and mother, Paula (Nathalie Baye). It is, as Frank soon learns, all a lie. His father owes money to the government and Sr.’s relationship with Paula isn’t terribly good. Things proceed on this downhill trajectory until Frank Jr. runs away… and pretends to be a Pan Am pilot.
It is all, actually, relatively ingenious and Spielberg keeps things moving so there’s no worries about how things actually might play out in the real world (based on a true story obviously not equaling a true story). Frank’s lies compound until Hanratty and the FBI begin circling him and Frank finds he has no way out.
Save for an incredibly false moment of actual capture where Frank has gone manic for some unclear reason, it’s a comedic caper movie. The film is an episodic bit of cat and mouse where we get glimpses into Frank’s life and only the barest hint at how these things might actually come to pass in the real world.
But, enough working around the margins, Catch me if You Can succeeds not just because it’s lighthearted, but because there’s actual heart behind it. As good as Frank Jr. might be at faking being a pilot or a doctor or a lawyer, the underpinning is the tale of his wanting to please his father, wanting his father to be happy, and to reestablish their family. It is a wish that can never be, but Jr. is a teen and can’t come to grips with that.
In one particularly telling scene, Frank begs his father to let him (Jr.) stop his con games. But, Sr. can’t allow it, he can’t see past his own troubles with the government and believes that Jr.’s sticking it to the government will in some way win back some of Sr.’s own pride. It, of course, won’t, but Jr.’s desperate love of, and need to please, Sr. means that he continues running, continues his schemes well past the point that he should.
Being pushed away by Sr. forces Jr. into the arms of Hanratty, a stand-in father who never sees his own child. Despite Hanratty’s wanting to catch Frank, Hanratty grows a certain amount of respect for his adversary through the years. In more than one way, Hanratty saves Frank’s life and it is Hanratty who sets Frank on the right path – the path on which Sr. could never put his son.
Wow, okay, that all sounds very heavy and serious, and while there are bits and pieces that are serious, as stated, the pace of the film keeps it all going forward so that even when you get those serious ideas, they’re shown to you through this lighthearted lens and constantly spun. You walk away with the idea of the melancholy and upset Frank Jr. feels when talking to his dad, but then again, that twinkle and half smile Walken puts in Sr.’s eye further keep it all light and airy.
That movement (and without Sr. present in the scene, that twinkle), unfortunately, doesn’t continue in the climactic chase scene, which is another reason that incredibly important moment in the film doesn’t work. When Hanratty finally corners Frank Jr. (and you know from the beginning of the film that he will), the only movement is DiCaprio’s jumping about and running through each of his lines at a mile a minute. At that moment, not only is Jr. cornered, but the film is too – it has to play out this serious moment in an otherwise comedic film and it just doesn’t know how to make it happen. Fortunately, the denouement takes longer than in the average film and most of the bad taste of this climax is washed away by the time the credits actually roll.
The bonus features included with the new Blu-ray release are interesting, but all appear to be previously released. In fact, little effort seems to have been put into getting them onto the disc – although they are all a standard definition 16:9, that 16:9 plays out within a 4:3 frame, meaning that not only will you end up with black bars on the top and bottom of the screen, but the left and right as well. A little care, presumably, could have resulted in optimizing the featurettes for a 16:9 television—even if they were kept SD—and a much better result. It is unfortunate because the bonus features are a series of behind-the-scenes talks about the film with the stars and crew (a gallery is included too). Frank Abagnale Jr. himself is present for some of the featurettes and is just wonderful to hear after one has watched the movie.
The technical side of the main feature is far better. The print is perfectly clean and detail is abundant. It isn’t the richest of color palettes, but depending on the location there are some moments of bright color which do pop. The dark sequences still provide ample light to make out what’s going on and dark colors don’t fade into one another. John Williams’ brilliant score for the film plays clearly on the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, which is well-leveled and alive with atmosphere. The film jumps from location to location and the soundtrack takes you there as well – whether it’s a school full of screaming girls, a hospital ER, or a massive printing press in a small town in France. It is, as with the visual presentation, free of defects and it offers up crisp and clear audio.
Catch me if You Can isn’t a movie I loved during its initial theatrical run, but it is one that I loved watching now on Blu-ray. It is this airy confection that manages to have a real heart and soul at its center. The father-father-son tale may not be the most traditional, but it certainly bolsters what I learned in film school and is a huge amount of fun to watch.