THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The expression "truth is stranger than fiction" applies perfectly to Catch Me If You Can. The film is based on the memoir of Frank Abagnale, Jr. who, in the early 1960's, pulled off a series of amazing cons and frauds, all before his 19th birthday. What makes this story different isn't necessarily the types of scams Abagnale pulled off (impersonating a Pan Am pilot and a doctor) but rather the fact that he wasn't really a criminal. At such a tender young age, Abagnale didn't intend to hurt anybody; he was mostly just a kid playing what to him was a big game.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Abagnale. When we first meet him, he's attending a Rotary meeting in which his father (Christopher Walken) is being celebrated. Frank Sr. is a businessman who has made some bad financial decisions and is subsequently being dogged by the government. He instills in his son a deep distrust of the system, suggesting that they're only out to take things away from honest hardworking Americans. This idea is reinforced when Frank Sr. loses the family home and car to debtors. Not long afterward, his beloved wife leaves him as well. The young Abagnale is so despondent that he runs away from home.

Needing something to fall back on, he calls upon his ability to think quickly on his feet. We see this in an early scene in which Abagnale passes himself off a substitute teacher in order to exact revenge against a student who tormented him on the first day of school. (Frank Sr. has taught his son this ability, as we see in another scene.) This time, he kind of stumbles onto the idea of assuming the identity of a pilot. Posing as a high school journalist, he first pumps technical information from a Pan Am executive, then swindles an official uniform. He then falsifies his own credentials and before long is sitting in the jump seat of a jet. Abagnale isn't really interested in flying planes, though. He poses as a pilot merely so he can cash Pan Am checks, which he also falsifies. He gets the glory of being a pilot plus a paycheck - all without actually having to do any work.

Before long, an FBI agent named Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) gets on the trail of the fake checks. He locates Abagnale but is suckered in by one of the kid's lies. Angered and humiliated, the no-nonsense Hanratty continues to dog the scam artist. The discovery that he's chasing a kid comes as a total shock. So does Abagnale's next ruse: using information gleamed from "Dr. Kildare", he passes himself off as a doctor and is soon running the overnight shift in a hospital. The chase continues, through one more scam (Abagnale somehow passes the bar and becomes a lawyer). It ends in France, when Hanratty captures the kid at long last, yet shows an unexpected concern for him.

About midway through Catch Me If You Can, I stopped and wondered why I was rooting for Frank Abagnale. After all, he's stealing large sums of money and, by managing part of the hospital, potentially putting peoples' lives in danger. Then it hit me: the kid doesn't quite understand what he's doing. Yes, he has a lot of expertise and know-how when it comes to faking documents, but the larger picture eludes him. This becomes clear closer to the end, when he calls Hanratty to say that he'll stop scamming if the agent will stop chasing him. Hanratty tells him it doesn't work that way, and Abagnale is floored. The idea that his actions might have serious repercussions doesn't compute.

An FBI agent (Tom Hanks) confronts a teenage con artist (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can
So why does he do it? There's a telling moment in which Abagnale meets up with his father in a bar. He tells Frank Sr. that he's done - his fight against the system is over. But his father tells him that he can't quit; he has to keep up the fight. Abagnale can't believe what he's hearing. Essentially, we discover that he's been taking up his father's fight. Abagnale has been infused with the idea that the system is bad, that it works against John Q. Public. He sees what the government has done to his father - taken what he owns, ruined him - and figured that he could dole out some kind of payback on his old man's behalf. Once he realizes that his scams haven't really accomplished that, he gets a big wakeup call. And again, it's a youthful rebellion, a knee-jerk defense of his father he undertakes without grasping the gravity of the situation.

This is obviously a compelling story with some intriguing ideas. Leonardo DiCaprio once again proves himself an extraordinary actor, making Abagnale believable in different ages and at different emotional states throughout his journey. Matching him is Tom Hanks, who plays Hanratty as a humorless, but not uncaring upholder of the law. The juxtaposition of the carefree teenage con artist and by-the-book fed gives Catch Me If You Can a real pulse. I liked both of these guys and wanted them both to "win." The fact that they became friends in real life makes for the perfect ending.

Director Steven Spielberg once again shows diversity like no other filmmaker before him. He revels in the early 60's time period, drawing inspiration from the cinematic style of the era. John Williams does similarly with his masterful score. The movie is too long by about 20 minutes (a slight trim would have made it even more breathlessly paced than it already is), but on the whole this is a movie with just about everything going for it: great acting, solid direction, and a story you won't soon forget.

( 1/2 out of four)

Catch Me If You Can is rated PG-13 for some sexual content and brief language. The running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes.

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