Steven Spielberg’s latest film, Catch Me If You Can, is the cat-and-mouse story of Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) and FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks). In this film, based on a true story, Spielberg drops the metaphysical speculations about postmodern humanity of AI and Minority Report in favor of old-fashioned storytelling. The result is a highly entertaining film that is in its way more instructive than the other films. As an impersonator of pilots, lawyers, and doctors, and a check forger, Frank Abagnale’s life is, in its lack of definition, the very definition of a post-modern self: a constructed and arbitrary self, always on the move and never what it seems to be.
Frank’s chameleon-like personality is on display early in the film, in a scene from his high-school days, where he impersonates a French teacher who is out sick. Frank, whose mother is French, sends away the real substitute and takes over the class. When he is caught a few days later, the principal explains to his father that Frank was planning a field trip to a French bakery. As his father exits the principal’s office, he winks approvingly at his son.
Spielberg situates Frank Jr.’s later escapades within his family life. Without indulging in the sort of sweeping generalizations about the suburban family found in American Beauty, Catch Me If You Can reveals a dark side of American life in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken) passes on to his son a desperate craving for material gain and societal recognition and a sense that the rules of the game are stacked against the little guy. He is hounded and destroyed by the IRS for tax fraud. (Walken, by the way, plays Frank Sr. with just the right mix of desperation and ironic detachment; in an early scene where he dances with his wife, you half expect him to break into his dance routine from the delightful Fatboy Slim video of a couple years ago.)
His father’s example fosters in Frank a sense of the amorality of the rule of law and of the arbitrariness of success. Frank states repeatedly that his motive is to get “it all back” for his family. But what he can’t get back is his family. Indeed, Frank’s escapist life has roots in his parents’ divorce. The most-dramatic early moments in the film include Frank’s discovery of his mother’s affair and his parents’ divorce attorney putting the onus on Frank to choose which parent will now be his primary guardian. Spielberg, who is prone to overdoing the mom-and-dad theme, handles these scenes deftly.
Frank Jr. is more at home, more comfortable and more confident, taking on fake identities than he is with his own life. Popular culture, in the form of comic books such as The Flash and TV shows such as Dr. Kildare and Perry Mason, feeds his imagination and suggests successful ways of life for him not just to imitate, but to inhabit.
Frank masters the art of forging checks and achieves his version of the American dream by impersonating an airline pilot. The film moves back and forth between admiration of Frank’s exploits and sorrow over his dreadful isolation and loneliness. When newspapers dub him the “James Bond of the Sky,” he embraces the role with gusto, purchasing Bond suits and cars. For effect, Spielberg adds Bond music and clips from the films.
But the need to stay constantly on the move and to live one lie after another has its costs — the deconstructed self can be no one and can live nowhere. After escaping from Hanratty’s clutches, Frank calls him to apologize for deceiving him. As a frustrated Hanratty sits alone in a dark office on Christmas Eve listening to Frank, he suddenly blurts out, “You called me because you have no one else to call!” An angry Frank slams down the phone. Occasionally, Frank tries to tell the truth. At one point, the father of a woman he wants to marry inquires privately how someone so successful and so talented could be interested in his rather plain daughter. Frank comes clean and admits that he’s none of the things he claims to be: “I’m nothing really, just a kid in love with your daughter.” Unable to see through Frank’s impressive construction of a successful image, the father gushes: “Oh. You’re just a romantic!”
The very thing that keeps Frank from slipping all the way into the abyss is a longing for family life, especially for the approval of his father. In one clandestine meeting with his father, he promises yet again to recover the family fortune and then give up his life of crime. He begs his father to “ask” him “to stop,” to which his father responds, “You can’t stop.”
The only one who insists that he stop, that the path he has chosen is a dead-end, is Hanratty. With his black suit and black shades, Hanratty looks like a member of the Blues Brothers, but his low-key personality, nearly void of humor, is their antithesis. Over the years, Hanratty comes to fill the paternal gap in Frank’s life, acting both as nemesis and as possibility of escape from the charade.
In an ironic twist on his father’s view of the law as a tyrant bent on the destruction of anonymous individuals, Hanratty, the FBI agent, teaches Frank Jr. that the dissolution of the self can be avoided only through accountability for one’s actions. Still, the film is less about the end of Frank’s exploits than it is about the exploits themselves. In an entertaining way, the film captures both the surface attraction and the essential emptiness of such a life. The detached, deconstructed self is not-so-much liberated as impoverished.
— Thomas S. Hibbs, professor of philosophy at Boston College, is the author of Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from The Exorcist to Seinfeld.