Saturday, January 13, 2024

Catch Me If You Can (2002).

There's an old saying that goes "Truth is Stranger than Fiction".  In a way, I guess time has told on that adage.  You here phrases bandied about such as "Post Truth", or "Alternative Facts" when it comes to attempts at delineating the kind of society we all live in.  For my own part, I prefer to use a much older model or lens through which to view these contemporary conundrums.  So far as I can see, it really takes no more than a few good read throughs of Classical Philosophy to realize that what's happening in the world at large now is no more than an old challenge showing up once again.  This time it comes in a suitable, modern appearance which fits the time and age of its recurrence.  All we're dealing with today is nothing less than the same challenges that Plato outlined in his Allegory of the Cave.  For the longest time, it seems, we thought we had a pretty good grasp on the nature of reality.  Then advances in science and technology have come along and more or less proven to us all that this conviction was perhaps always little more than a convenient, but ultimately unworkable mask, and that the column of reality always had more than a few holes in it.  The result seems to have left us all in an unenviable position.  We've seem to have reached a point where its now become part of our daily routine to separate truth from falsehoods.

Rather than becoming a vehicle of spreading truth and democracy, it seems as if the advent of the Internet, and its attendant "digital village" has instead served to effectively dismantle the public square.  The net result of this successful attack is that it becomes possible to claim that any legitimate forum for public debate has, in effect, become co-opted.  Free speech, in other words, has been successfully infringed.  And the real kick in the teeth is how to do you regulate such infringements when the reach of the entire problem seems international in scope?  The sad part is I really can't offer you any solutions to these problems.  All this is just the simple train of thought kicked off by an encounter with Steven Spielberg's 2002 film, Catch Me If You Can.  I almost described it as an adaptation in that last sentence, for the simple reason that this is what it is.  The movie is based off of a book by the same name.  It was published way back just as the director of Jaws and Indiana Jones was getting his start.  It was also written by an otherwise unknown face in the crowd by the name of Frank Abagnale.  For reference and convenience I always pronounce that particular moniker as follows: "ABA-nail".  Hope that helps.

So who is this name from nowhere in particular, or Anywhere, USA?  What was it about this guy that caught the attention of the creator of E.T. ?  What particular story does he have to tell, and is it worth a hearing?  More important than all of this, what can something such as the nefarious life, times, and exploits of a simple, unassuming con artist tell us about the struggle to get at the truth in an era where such ventures can sometimes be a necessity of survival?  Some of that is a tall order to ask for.  So I won't even to pretend to go and look for all the answers with the help of a simple early 20s rom-com-drama.  It's a lot more the case of a critic wondering if the story of someone like Abagnale can help ease us into the task of learning to tell false fronts from reality by presenting us with a useful, and thankfully less vitriolic case study, both on and off the screen.  So with that in mind, let's a game of play catch-up.

The Plot.

In trying to separate fact from fiction, I'm going to start with the latter, in the strictest sense.  The reasons for doing this are: (1) it's ultimately Spielberg's film adaptation that this review is here to discuss, more than anything else.  So it makes some kind of sense to focus on the artistry of the fiction, in order to see how well it holds up.  (2) It also gives the reader and critic a solid base to work from whenever we have to get around to the inevitable (though perhaps less than enviable) task of figuring out really happened from make-believe.  That's the trouble with trying to review a film based on a real life event.  You can't just treat the art in isolation.  You always have to see how well it stacks up against the demands of real life.  I'm not complaining, and there's a lot to be said for getting the facts straight.  I guess what bugs me are cases like this.  Where you can tell almost from the beginning that the storyteller is deliberately trying to lie to you, right from the very start.  That's an issue because it means the question of the narrative playing fair with the reader is always going to be up for grabs.

The real value of any fiction is that there's always some thematic Truth tucked away inside what is otherwise just another ostensible lie.  This is something contained in any well written work of the Imagination.  It's what gives Charles Dickens his reputation as a man of, and speaker for the plight of the people.  It's also the reason some readers once upon a time sent professional letters of enquiry to the fictional address of 221B Baker Street.  They labored under the mistaken impression that Sherlock Holmes was an actual flesh and blood private detective, based solely on the skill with which the character was drawn by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  This gets close to what I mean by the kernel of Truth tucked away within the lie of fiction.  If the writer is willing to play fair with their readers, and above all are willing to respect the integrity of the Creative Idea so that it can tell the truth inside the lie, then that's little more than standard operating procedure when it comes to both writing and reading fiction.

The trouble starts when you run into guys like the author of this particular narrative.  Someone who approaches it not from the perspective of just someone who likes entertaining others with make-believe, but rather as a con artist looking for gullible "marks".  At the heart of Catch Me If You Can, we have the figure of Frank Abignale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio).  To all appearances, there's nothing that out of the ordinary about him.  He's just the son of well-to-do enough middle class family living in New Rochelle, New York.  His father, Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken) was a stationary store owner.  His mother was a French emigre that his Dad met in her home village during WWII.  So far, everything is picture-postcard.  Though Frank does notice his father's "Way with Words", in a matter of speaking.  Turns out Dear Old Dad had more than few tricks up his sleeve for closing important business deals.  Some of these gambits were, perhaps, let's say, less than honest.  The good news, however, is nobody was ever hurt by it, and the job got done.  So it was pretty much Aces High as far as Frank was concerned.

A nice house, a good home life with parents who cared about him, and the potential of a very bright future ahead him.  And so just like that, everything went to hell.  It all started when his parents got divorced.  Frank's father just couldn't seem to hold it together in financial terms.  The IRS cornered him for cashing in more than just a few bad checks, and when the bills first came due, and then piled up due to Abignale Sr's consummate sense of professional negligence, it kinda-mighta-sorta bled into the former Rotary Club Honoree's home life.  In fact, it seems to have gotten so bad to the point that his Dad sort of took the strong romantic bonds shared between him as his wife, along with the familial ones they both shared with their son, and just sort of ripped it all in apart.  Like chewing off a bit of Twix, and never really pausing to ever give it much of the second thoughts a lot of it all needed.  Frank's Mom, Paula went ahead and proceeded to do what seemed like the sensible enough thing.  I mean you can't have your own child living in a home life such as that.  However, she decided to play it fair.

She asked her son which parent he would choose to live with.  Would it be her, or his father?  Frank took what you could call an ironic form of the Solomonic option, and split the difference.  Rather than choose a life with either parent, he turned tail and ran from them both.  So there he was.  Just this nothing kid from Rochelle, out of the streets of a Big Apple that was well on its way to turning rotten, just the way Scorsese brought it to life on the screen years later.  So in a state of pretty much total desperation, and not having much else in the way of prospects, Frank hit upon the one idea that at least seemed to fit the situation.  He reached for his Dad's old bag of tricks, and started work on a con that would put some much needed money in his pocket.  To the dumb young schmuck's own surprise, his first few efforts at this turned out to be successful.  It starts out small with the luckless kid turning himself into something of an overnight prodigy when it comes to forging checks and cashing them in.

The skills and little tricks he learned from his Dad at mastering the art of the sell is what allows him to talk his way past the guardrails that the next bank he walks into has in place.  At first it's just an easy way to line his pocket.  Only this and nothing more, as some old poem has it.  Then one day, he makes a discovery that changes the course of his new "career".  Frank notices the glamour that attaches to the life of 1960s airline pilots.  I'm assuming this was something specific to the decade here, rather than any kind of natural trend.  Trans-Atlantic air travel didn't take off in a big way until after the conclusion of first the Second World, and then the Korean War.  When commercial airlines went mainstream, there seems to have been this brief window of opportunity for a sense of "romance" to attach itself towards having a bonafide pilot's license.  It's the kind of setup that is pretty much unthinkable nowadays.  In the early 1960s, however, the gild still hadn't quite slipped off the lily.  That fabled window of opportunity was still open.  It might have been slowly sliding to a close even back then.  Yet the window remained unlatched for the time being, even if only just a crack.  It was enough for Frank.

The young man saw his opportunity, took it, and then ran with it.  Soon he was not just the possessor of his own genuine United Airlines uniform, he was using a combination of it and his skill with forging no longer just rubber checks, but also fake IDs to pretty much hitch himself an ongoing series of free rides across the Nation.  It doesn't just stop there, however.  From impersonating frequent flyers, Frank soon moves on to role playing as various imaginary doctors until at one point he seems poised to adopt a permanent mask as lawyer Frank Connors, assistant to the District Attorney for the State of Louisiana.  

The trouble is that bad checks bounce, and if you pile that sort of crap up, sooner or later there's going to be a ton of pissed off creditors looking to collect the bill, even if they have to take it out of your own hide.  Also, here's another tip to bear in mind.  If you get enough people to complain about you, then sooner or later someone important is going to hear about it.  Complaints like this always tend to move up the ladder, not down.  Eventually, Frank's ongoing scam reaches the office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  That's where his case lands on the desk of Special Agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks).

For whatever reason, this once married and now divorced father of one daughter takes an interest in Frank's crime spree.  Now he's is using his considerable skills at tracking the young con artist down, and Frank Abagnale has to see how well he can not just evade capture, but also hold onto the new life he's managed to build up for himself.  There's also a third problem to deal with in all this.  It's perhaps best described as the thrill of the con.  That peculiar rush of satisfaction that comes from knowing you have reduced some of the smartest human beings on the planet to a level far below and beneath you.  To turn a wise man into a fool within seconds flat.  It's like having your own superpower.  Is it possible for someone like Frank to willingly turn his back on that kind of skill set?  Or will the thrill of the chase and the con have the last word?  These are the issues that beset the life of some kid from New Rochelle.

Separating Fact from Fiction.

In many ways, this might be the most ironic film I've ever reviewed.  The irony stems more from the overall context of this film, and how it informs the final product, more than anything else.  There's enough worth talking here, at any rate, that I'll have to break the themes, story elements, and behind the scenes info down to just two paths of exploration.  One is the problem of having to tell fact from fiction.  The other is how the final results of this finished film tell us more about its director, more than anything else.  If the two ideas seem unrelated, then part of the reason for that might be just because Spielberg allowed himself to get drawn into another man's con trick.  The punchline, however, is that the director might have been the one to have the last laugh, because he turned out to be the one to use film's like this to help him turn over more or a new leaf than the real life scammer behind this movie.

Looked at from this perspective, we'd better start out with how the story's real life context ties into the need to discern truth from lies.  Catch Me If You Can is by no means the pure invention of Spielberg himself.  Turns out the whole film is more or less the adaptation of a book.  It was written by the actual Frank Abagnale Jr. during the 1970s, then finally saw publication and shelf life some time around 1980.  Ever since Frank's colorful memoir of life as a felon hit the shelves, there have been constant claims that the author has stretched the truth more than by just a little.  For instance, the memoir makes the unequivocal statement that Abagnale's greatest period of criminal exploits was from 1963 to 69.  The claim being that once Abagnale got started on his first successful con, he just kept going, living the life of a modern day Clyde Barrow, except this time the weapon of choice was words and charm, instead of a gun.  Same basic "occupation", different tactics, and a better outcome is all.  The trouble with this claim starts once you begin to dig into Frank's actual, documented criminal record.

For one thing, the real Abagnale Jr. was incarcerated from 1965 to 68.  Once he got finished serving that sentence, it didn't take Frank long to fall back into old, bad habits and find himself once more behind bars before the Summer of 69 turned into the inaugural year of the 70s.  Sometime after that he managed to pull off what might be considered his most iconic card trick.  He really did manage to pull off the impersonation of an airline pilot for a brief spate.  He never used this to hop flights without having to pay.  Nor is there any indication that Abagnale ever learned to know his way around the actual controls of an airplane.  For some reason, there's a great deal of relief wrapped up in that knowledge as far as I'm concerned.  Nor did the real Abagnale ever manage to talk his way into the doctor's office.  The curious part is where truth and fiction begin to shade into one another.  It's been difficult to tell whether or not the real Frank ever did manage to ace a Bar Examination for the Louisiana legal system.  I think it's moments like this when you have to be careful where you step the most.  It's the part where the very nature of reality begins to be tricksy almost by a kind of inexplainable default.  That's got to be the worst situation to be in.  Especially if life or death hinges on choosing what to believe is the truth.

I suppose that's the real dilemma at the heart of living in an era where everybody is sort unceremoniously forced into a game of True Detective.  I'm not sure how well equipped most of us are mentally to try and figure our way out of a situation where the opportunity to gaslight and trick the vast majority of the world's population is always at our collective fingertips.  Nevertheless, this seems to be the defining struggle of the contemporary era going forward.  My own approach to it all is this.  If at least some measure of truth didn't exist, then no one would ever go to such trouble to try and distort our perception of reality.  Therefore, while trying to keep your head above all the misinformation white noise might be one literal mindfuck of a hassle, it is at the same time maybe not so much of an insurmountable task as it at least sometimes feels like.  Conquering one's emotions seems to be half the battle in a case like this.  Sharpening our critical thinking skills represents the other necessity.  The good news when it comes to tackling a film or a supposed "memoir" like this is that the task is relatively (and thankfully) a lot more simple and straightforward.  The truth is the "memoir" is a con in and of itself.

Much like his movie counterpart, Frank Abagnale Jr. really did find some way to clean up his act.  He's been a straight citizen since the 1970s.  Telling tall tales about his past, and then publishing it all in a so-called" "tell-all" book seems to have been the equivalent of a parting shot farewell.  Abagnale's way of both looking back fondly at his misspent youth, while also closing the book on this chapter of his former life by honoring it all with one last, great, final con artists trick.  Perhaps the purest one that has ever existed.  Frank decided to take his own criminal failings, and then spin a Capra-esque fairy tale around it all.  Both the book and its adaptation are therefore little more than exercises of spinning whole cloth from start to finish.  The real guy never saw his father again after running away from home, for instance, and it's for sure he never came close to starting over as a lawyer in Louisiana.  There was an FBI agent who successfully pursued him to capture, conviction, and incarceration.  They also struck up a kind of competitive friendship of sorts.  The agent's name was Joseph Shea, however, not Hanratty.

Beyond these bare facts, however, everything about Abagnale's book and Spielberg's adaptation is a complete lie that can only be enjoyed on the level of pure fiction.  So what happens if we switch perspective lenses, and look at the film as just a work of ordinary make-believe?  What happens then?  

The Artistic Phases of Steven Spielberg. 

For me, the one element of this film that stands out from all the others centers around the place a feature like this occupies within the larger context of Steven Spielberg's life and career.  I'm not sure how off point this might sound to others.  I'm convinced, however, that the best way to approach a movie like this is by looking at it from a chronological perspective.  To view it from the vantage of it's place in the growth of the artist's mind and art.  I'd argue it's when you take this approach that the exact nature of the film and its success just as pure story becomes clear.  The audience then has a wider understanding from which to make any valid judgment call.  So with this rubric in mind, let's start out by discussing the other context behind this film.  I don't think it's too far out of court at this late date to claim that Spielberg's career as a filmmaker can be divided into a series of phases, roughly three in number.

The first takes us to his big breakout during the middle of the New Hollywood of the 1970s.  For most viewers, the origin point for the start of the artist's career is with the blockbuster success of Jaws.  However, I'd argue that it's just as easily possible to make the case that the actual beginning of things was in the production of relatively small TV Movies of the Week, such as his 1971 adaptation of Richard Matheson's Duel.  It's even possible to be generous an extend the director's point of origin as far back the premiere episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery in 1969.  Turns out Spielberg was one of the fresh faced young talents at the time that the creator of the Twilight Zone tapped to helm the series' pilot.  So far as I've been able to discover, while this might not have been the director's first ever film (that honor goes to a short picture called Amblin, back during his college student days) it was Steven's first crack at taking charge of a picture from a professional director's chair.  It was the opportunity of a lifetime, so far as the Movie Brat from Arizona was concerned, and he owed it to one of his idols.

In other words, you could frame the true start of things in the following terms.  Once upon a time, Rod Serling took a gamble on an untried talent.  It paid off more than plenty and well in the long run.  The point, however, is that this is the true start of what I tend to think of as Spielberg's first phase.  These are what many now consider the glory years of the artist's career.  The one where he either made or helped produce some of his most iconic features.  It's the era that gave us E.T., Indiana Jones, along with features that the director had a shaping hand in producing, such as Poltergeist, Gremlins, An American Tail, The Goonies, Back to the Future, The Land Before Time.  Even Who Framed Roger Rabbit counts as a Spielberg production in some capacity.  I think a recitation of each of these titles alone is enough to give even the casual movie-goer a sense of why this is the part of the director's career that tends to get the most attention.  The simple reason for this is because it was the busiest and most productive period in Steven's life.  When he wasn't busy creating great films under his own steam, he was lending his support and artistry to a host of others.  Even when he wasn't in the director's chair, the stories he helped produce can't help but contain trace elements of the director's personal touch in their chemistry.

This initial phase is the one that has lasted for the longest time, and continues to cast the greatest shadow over not just Spielberg's career, but also of his life and legacy in general.  The last cinematic entry in this phase seems to be pinpointed easily enough, with the release of Jurassic Park in 1993.  There's something about that feature which acts as the near perfect curtain closer on the first part of the director's career.  From here on in, things tend to be a bit more contested, if never outright controversial.  It's just that now, while the filmmaker continues to churn out films that are both financially and critically successful, audiences tend to find them a lot more hit and miss.  From here on in, a great deal of pick and choose tends to exist among viewers as to which features are most deserving of praise and attention.  I tend to look at the next stage of Spielberg's career as one of self-doubt and searching.  It begins with Schindler's List and it comes to a close with what appears to be the one-two punch of both Munich and The War of the Worlds.  A lot of fans tend to think of it as the director's dark period, and it's easy to see why.  This was when Spielberg turned his attention to darker subject matter.

While never abandoning his initial roots, we find the director tackling harsher topics in his films from this phase.  This is the era that gave us Saving Private Ryan, among others.  It's now considered among the most representative, and honored film from this spate in the Movie Brat's life.  However, I'd have to say it's entire nature is summed up in the production of Minority Report.  When making that film, Steven said he really wanted to challenge himself, and see if he could succeed at making a film that was almost the exact opposite of his own style and approach.  I'd argue he achieved that goal with faded and washed out (as opposed to flying) colors.  And the picture has gone on to be a Sci-Fi Noir favorite ever since.  For the purposes of this review, what's interesting is the turn the rest of his films in this phase took in the aftermath of the Holocaust film, the D-Day picture, and the Philip K. Dick adaptation.

In one sense, the director's second phase continues onward for a few more entries or so.  What's notable about the last batch of films in this part of his career, however, is the interesting sense of a gathering sea change; of sorts, anyway.  It's the point where films like Catch Me If You Can come into play.  The interesting part about it, and all the Second Phase films that came after, is that the director claimed in interviews how he was looking for a way to switch gears just (or maybe a whole lot more than) a little.  He was itching to do something lighter, like a comedy.  This was the point at which Abagnale's memoir surfaced once again, after a previous, earlier encounter with it.  For whatever reason, it seems to have been the picture Spielberg needed in order to give himself permission to effect a professional sea change.  It doesn't count as the end of the director's Second Phase.  However, it might just mark out the point where the Second half of his artistry began to transition into the current Third part of his life as a filmmaker.  Every Second part film after Report reads like a pallet cleanser, of sorts.  It's like you can sense the artist getting ready to make a few changes, and the next series of projects are how he does it.

It all comes to a head with the director's adaptation of H.G. Well's original novel of an Invasion from Planet Mars.  War of the Worlds is a film that reads like nothing less than the director, not quite taking an axe to his previous efforts, or anything like that.  It's more that you can sense Spielberg has identified whichever part of his Second Phase is dross or chaff that can be safely burned away without any cost.  While also recognizing the vital essentials of his art which must be kept and guarded as close as possible.  Much like a father would with his children.  It's the director's way of bidding farewell to whatever part of his Second Phase that he is willing to leave behind, by giving it all one great, big, Viking Funerial style send-off.  That just leaves us where we are now, with the Third Phase of the artist.

It begins with one of (if perhaps no longer the most contested) entry in the Indy franchise, and has continued on ever since.  For better or worse, I think what can be said beyond dispute is that whatever you think of the quality of any of his films from this period, it's easy enough to tell that the director himself has managed to achieve a second homecoming of sorts, if that makes any sense.  In other words, Spielberg's Third Phase showcases the director making a concerted effort to go back to his roots as a filmmaker.  He seems to be going about this in two interconnected ways.  On the one hand, he'll take on the type of projects that harken, in one way or another, back to his glory days during the 80s.  This is how you get the return of Harrison Ford, but also films that can be spoken of as containing that same kind of familiar, adventurous spirit.  This applies to an adaptation of the Tintin graphic novel series, as well as to sideline projects he executive produced, such as Super 8.  Whatever you might want to say for or against that film, it almost has to be pointed to as the poster child for this particular phase.

The whole damn thing is nothing less than an homage to not just the type of films that made Spielberg a household name during the Brat Pack era.  It also goes out of its way in trying to capture both the look and feel of what it was like to either be a participant watching the magic unfold as you sat there, sequestered away in your own, safe corner of the theater aisles, or else the thrill and sense of adventure there was in being inspired enough by the films you watched and liked to become a movie maker of your own.  Super 8 is very much the product of an old maestro pining once again for the sense of freedom that came attached with those lean and hungry years when he could do it all with just guts and in his own instinctive storyteller's talent.  Such is the first aspect and approach of the director's current artistic period.  The second part of it is a bit more curious.  I'd almost have to call it antiquarian, in some ways.  Another way that Spielberg has of reaching back into his roots is to try and telegraph and showcase to viewers the kinds of films, genres, and works of other cinema artists that inspired him.

This means that a lot of his current movies will feature moments or callbacks to both the Golden and Silver ages of Hollywood.  This aspect is shown most strongly in the Period Dramas the director has helmed in recent years.  Films like Warhorse, Lincoln, and Bridge of Spies are nothing less than another type of feature length homage.  This time, rather than the more familiar setup of the kind of pulp Science Fiction or Fantasy that is still the most familiar to us, Spielberg is instead trying to draw our attention to the way that earlier filmmakers like John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawkes or Elia Kazan molded him into the kind of director he is.  These are the entries in his filmography that are perhaps never going to be as popular among the audience as his more familiar work.  These are the one that will forever be slipping just off the radar, except for the occasional spotlight moment, when a curious cinephile decides to wander off the beaten track and dusts one of them off to see what else their favorite director has done.  What they'll discover, more often than not is the filmmaker trying to get viewers to understand why films by these directors, or in these genres are so important to him.

He also means to get across the point that these types of older classics are still worth digging up and preserving in the memory of future generations.  It's perhaps now that slapping the label of antiquarian on a lot of his current later efforts begins to make a bit more sense.  It's like the director has become a one-man film preservationist; the Hollywood equivalent of Dr. Jones himself.  Except this time, the relics he's trying to preserve are movies, instead of archaeological artifacts.  This has become something of a personal crusade with Spielberg in his Third Phase.  It's a passion he shares with his fellow New Hollywood friend and contemporary, Martin Scorsese.  So it's should come as no real surprise that the sense of wanting to preserve the best of the past for the sake of the future has become something of a running theme in his most recent works.  This then, is a good rundown of the career and phases of Steven Spielberg.  All that remains is to find out what place Catch Me has in all of this history.  

Conclusion: An Interesting Transition Piece with at Least One Good Lesson.  

When I look at this film, what stands out to me the most is its place in Spielberg's career, up to that point.  In other words, I find myself noticing what it says about the state of the artist's mind at the time the film was made, rather than as a story unto itself.  I'm not real sure how good of a sign that is.  For instance, whenever an important dramatic moment or twist of the plot occurs, I'll start immediately trying to analyze it.  However, everything about what I'm seeing led me to wonder things like: "Okay, so what do you suppose the director's handling of the mother character in the penultimate scene means.  The one where the main character is looking in through the window, as if he's forever barred from things"?  I know a sequence like that can be read as statement of one man's alienation from his family.  And to be fair, that probably the very subtext that the director was trying to get across.  It's just that everything about this film tells me that I'm analyzing an one artist's autobiography at second hand.

Now don't get me wrong on this.  It's a complete and total mistake to claim that the fictional version of Abagnale equals the director.  Or that the character's make-believe parents are a perfect one-to-one correspondence for the filmmakers real life relatives.  At the same time, it's impossible to ignore the fact that this is one of those film's where the artist is using the plot more as a vehicle to try and examine his own personal situation, more than anything else.  Now it's important to make one thing clear here.  There's nothing wrong with making a film or telling a story that is either a straightforward autobiography, or else that contains autobiographical elements.  In fact, it is even possible to point to numerous examples of films or books in this same vein.  Some of them have even gone on to be considered classics in their own right.  It's a list that includes, among, others, A Christmas Story, and George Lucas's American Graffiti.  On the literary side of things, Stephen King has distilled his own experiences into winning fictional stories such as Stand By Me and Hearts in Atlantis.  To top it all off, Martin Scorsese's films might be termed as a series of autobiographies of a number of desperate souls.

Each of these are masterclasses of the particular sub-genre under discussion here.  It therefore makes sense to view Spielberg's adaptation of Abagnale's book as fitting in well with this category.  I'm just unsure how well it succeeds in comparison with any of the other offerings just mentioned.  In films like Graffiti or books like Hearts, the power of the narrative through line, and the characters who live in it is such that the whole things pulls you into the secondary worlds each artist has created almost from the opening shot, or first line of prose.  That is a skill that never comes easy, and takes worlds of talent to pull off well.  Now to be even more fair, Spielberg has proven he is equal to such a task, as the results of a film like E.T. or The Fabelmans demonstrates.  The difference between those efforts and a work like Catch Me seems to rest in two aspects.  One of them is creative investment.  The other might be termed the sense of identification.  In films like E.T. you know the director identifies with the main characters, and the struggles they're all going through.  The director has even admitted that the little boy at the heart of his most famous effort is based in a large degree on how he was at the very same age.

Spielberg seems to be at least trying after the same tactic with this film.  As was said above, however, the difference between Abagnale and Elliott lies in just how much sympathy the artist can spare for his protagonist.  In the former case, it was a simple matter of being all heart and soul.  As a result, the director has invested so much of himself in the work that it's obvious for all to see on the screen.  This is one of the major discernable, yet perhaps often overlooked aspects of The Extra-Terrestrial that helps make the earlier film work like a literal charm.  The director seems to be struggling with that same approach by comparison, here.  This is somewhat ironic as one of his stated goals was to create a film where it was possible to sympathize with a criminal (web).  The ironic truth here might be that the director reached a limit to his sympathies.  One maybe even he was unaware of until he yelled action.  The fact is that Spielberg can never quite seem to make this material work, and the major reason for this is because he can't find any good reason to identify and hence invest with the drama of the main lead.

I almost get the impression that this is the kind of script that should have been handed over to someone like Scorsese, the Coen Bros., or Wes Anderson.  Someone who could take the script and give whatever extra bit of punch it needed to sell the story to the fullest possible measure.  Spielberg has long since proven he's capable of tackling dark subject matter, and the irony here is that this isn't even all that grim a fairy tale.  It's a lot more like a comedy of manners in the vein of Ben Jonson.  The punchline is that if we use the Renaissance poet as a benchmark, then the Abagnale adaptation still doesn't come close, not even on the level of fiction.  It all comes down to the fact that the director can't find any right way into this story, because he can't really sympathize with it, and so it's no surprise if he's never really able to bring it to life.  Compare this with the previous entry, which was Minority Report, and the contrasts between enthusiasm and investment couldn't be more stark.  It's as if night and day switched places.

This just leaves the real importance the film has, and that's is its status signaling, as it does, the sea change of the director's Second Phase.  At the crux of the whole issue lies the way the film is meant to act as both a reflection and commentary on what is perhaps the most impactful and shaping event of the artist's life.  This would be the similar divorce that Spielberg's own parents wound up going through, and how this became more or less the overriding influence on his life as a person, and his profession as an artist.  In a way, it is just possible to claim that this single, real life event is what acts as the overarching, guiding thread through every story the director has told us throughout his existence. 

This can be seen in both the types of protagonists, and the situations they are confronted with in every story that Spielberg has either filmed himself, or else helped to get off the ground.  It's shown in the way Elliott and his siblings are still silently reeling from the separation their mother and father have gone through.  It's in the strained relations that Indiana Jones has with his own dad.  It's Marty McFly doing whatever he can to try and help his parents sort their own lives out when they were a bunch of confused and mixed-up teenagers just like himself.  It's Fievel Moskowitz doing what he can to make sure he even a has a family to go back to once he successfully arrives on American shores for the first time.  Even in a film that seems disconnected from such concerns, such as Roger Rabbit, we are in fact confronted with a main character who is still having difficulty processing the violent loss of someone who turns out to have been the only family member he had left before the opening act curtain call.  

These are all the most famous and memorable riffs contained in the cinema of Spielberg, and they are all playing off of that one, single note of a tumultuous family life (along with the various threats to its stability, both internal as well as external) as its foundational background rhythm.  In a way, it makes perfect sense to claim that the films of Steven Spielberg stand as perhaps the most successful example of an artist playing off a single, unchanging note throughout his career, and never having it grow stale, or tired.  The question of family, and either its cohesion or loss, then, is the main building block of every movie Spielberg has had a hand in.  A film like Catch Me If You Can is certainly no different in this respect.  What makes this example notable, however, is its curious lack of notability in comparison with a lot of stronger works that have come either before or after it.  Am I saying the film is bad?  Well, the funny thing is no, I'm not quite sure I can leave it at this.  It's well shot, the acting is more than top notch.  There's one of two good moments of tension (such as when DiCaprio talks his way out of a situation where Hanks has a gun trained on him).  Yet it's all relatively lightweight in it's final results.

Perhaps the best verdict I can give a story like this goes as follows.  I can say it's worth a watch, if you ever manage to find an interest in it.  However, I'd easily recommend even lesser known or well regarded films in the artist's cannon, such as War of the Worlds or Tintin over this one.  The latter two are examples of the director giving the story all of his investment.  This one just comes off as muddled due to the key factors mentioned time and again.  It's best regarded as a transition piece.  Something akin to a mental pallet cleanser before starting to switch gears into a new phase of life.  Catch Me If You Can strikes me as one of Spielberg's most analytical, yet detached works.  The whole story is there more as a means, rather than an end.  He seems less concerned about it as an entertainment in its own right, and more as a wall to bounce his own state of mind off of before shifting the perspective around just a bit.  In that sense it's no real wonder if the final result comes off as somewhat furtive and less focused when the director's mindset is always starting to turn its attention to greater horizons.

Part of the reason Spielberg made this film was as a way to help him deal with a major revelation about his parents during the time before production began.  In a recent article by Jonathan Dean, the director opens up about what in retrospect sounds like a key moment in his life.  Once upon a time, this nothing kid from Phoenix was busy making films with his neighborhood friends.  A setup very akin to Stranger Things, except instead of uncovering a monstrous, supernatural threat, all this young boy found was the sight of his own mother having a tryst with a friend of his dad's.  He caught that one moment of the two of them together, by pure accident, on a strip of celluloid housed within the casing of his Super 8 home movie camera.  It was the first hint that something was wrong in the family household.  And what happens next reads like something out of an Eighteenth Century Romantic poem.  All that's changed is the setting and the accents, along with the technology and the clothes.  This is what happened.

All that occurred is what I guess is not that unusual, yet it caught the artist like a blow from a clenched fist.  Leah Spielberg, the director's mother, found herself just plain falling in love with someone else.  You'll have to ask her why that happened, I'm afraid.  Guess maybe it never really was in the cards to begin with.  Not for her and Arnold Spielberg, anyway.  It's too bad.  I'm just guessing again, here.  Yet it wouldn't surprise me at all to learn that both of them wished it could have worked out.  Even if it is true, what's for certain is they're not the only one's who thought that way.  Like I say, these things just have a way of happening, sometimes.  No matter how hard you try.  The remarkable part about it, the one element that gives it the kind of twist you'd swear sounds made up, yet isn't is this.  As Dean writes, "Spielberg’s mother would soon (re-marry, sic) while Arnold, remarkably, took the blame for the divorce to protect Leah’s standing with her children—a noble act that led to many years of estrangement from his son. It’s a theme recurrent in so many Spielberg movies (web)".

Like I say, the whole damn thing, and it's results read like something out of a novel by Dickens or Austen.  Or maybe else a poem by Coleridge, Byron, or Shelley.  The effect it had on the Spielberg's most talented son was also not without its literary sounding qualities.  Not many children who are the products of a divorced marriage are capable of doing what Steven did.  Many of them may carry the event around like a wound that won't heal.  Very few were or are able to find an outlet for all the conflicting emotions and ideas such an event can stir around in their heads, and go on to make genuine creative art out of it.  It's what the creator of E.T. did, however.  This too also has the same, strange note of real life Romanticism to it.  This peculiar literary note or quality applied to reality seems to also have carried over into the further event of this revelation being made known to the director by his parents years later.  If I had to figure why they told him in the end, then the simplest reason is also the most likeliest.  They were still his parents, and couldn't bear to see their son still suffer after all these years.

So, what happened next continues to cast a very Romantic light on the tail-end of the director's Second Phase.  I'm venturing off the trail of any established record here, a little.  A lot of what comes next falls under the heading of conjecture to an extent.  What I will swear is true is that I know I've read an article somewhere in which Spielberg talked of how his folks revealed all these secrets to him sometime between 1997 at the earliest, or 99 to 2001 at the latest.  Once again, it was a revelation from the parents that acted as a kind of blow.  The difference this time is that it seems to have resulted in a much more positive effect.  This time his folks seem to have given the artist whatever it was he needed to start finding some kind of closure for himself.  In this same interview I'm talking about yet still can't find, Steven goes on about how working on Catch Me If You Can was his immediate way of processing this new-old discovery for himself.  My conjecture is that his parents told him the truth sometime before the DiCaprio-Hanks collaboration, and the impact from this is what made him sign on to the project in the first place.  I think it also explains the nature of this film as being a haphazard moment of transition.

Once more the actions and words have a galvanizing effect on the artist, and the creativity it all sparks off in his Imagination.  This time, however, there is a positive turn to it all.  For the longest time, Spielberg labored under one belief about his life.  The divorce of his parents was seen as a horrible impossibility made manifest.  As a result, each film he's ever made, every story he's ever told for the longest time had or has been nothing less than attempts to find the proper ways of confronting that impossible head on.  At last, it seems to have been the very people who started this problem who have also provided the solution their son was looking for.  This too has a Romantic note about it.  Maybe it's one of those personal telos type deals, or something like that.  Make up your own mind.  What's important is that Arnold and Leah Spielberg each managed to give their son another twist of the plot.  This time, it is one that allowed him to begin some kind of fundamental way, as they say, for "the healing to begin".  Hence the curious note of a sea change in the director's work, beginning with the fictionalized story of Frank Abagnale.  At it's heart, Catch Me is a film about adopting illusions about the people closest to you, and then learning how to let them go, and discovering reality is not so bad.

I guess the film as a whole can be described in the same terms.  However, it's also not an example of the director at his finest.  As I've said, this is a case of the artist concerned less with the story itself.  It's more of a means or jumping off point, of sorts.  The kind of lightweight project Spielberg maybe needed at that moment.  The right pallet cleanser at the right time.  Something that would allow him to take a bit of stock, and starting re-arranging a few personal matters, and then seeing if it was possible to move on, while also staying true to his core artistic roots as a storyteller.  The result makes for a final product that's maybe best described as less of a genuine film, and more the cinematic equivalent of a place-holder.  Spielberg seems to have used this film as a bit of checkpoint in which to take stock of where he was at this point in his life.  There's a lot less for him to identify with in the figure of Abagnale, compared with a lot of his other protagonists.  Despite each man coming from broken homes, the director seems to realize that he's just never had it as bad as Frank.  The net result of this realization is a film that treats its main character as something to avoid, rather than foster any real sympathy.

The trouble with this is that while reaching such a conclusion can be perfectly healthy and even beneficial in real life, it's not the same thing as cooking up the well written sort of plot that either the artist or the audience can get invested in.  In short, while productive psychological therapy always has the chance to make for good fiction, that just turned to not be the case on this picture.  Catch Me If You Can is the closest equivalent I've ever seen to a discarded Rorschach test from one of the artist's previous meetings with his therapist.  There's every sign that the session turned out to be a good one.  There might very well have even been a breakthrough, of sorts.  However, it's clear the patient, or artist was a lot more focused on the achievement of that breakthrough and its meaning, rather than worrying about whether or not any kind of good art could be spun off from it.  To be fair, like I said, that makes perfect sense in real life terms.  If you're thrown a good lifeline, you take it, and never mind having to look back, at least not for the moment, anyway.  It still leaves the task of good storytelling unfulfilled.  The good news in all this is that Spielberg has gone on to greater strengths.  Catch Me If You Can serves less as a film, and more as a jumping off point for a better future.  It's a good lesson, if not a real story.

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