The watchword here is charm. Catch Me If You Can is one of those eye-twinkling “based on” biographical fantasies, here portraying a version of the life of conman Frank William Abagnale Jr and the fictional FBI agent Carl Hanratty (roughly based on Joe Shea, who did most of the real life chasing of Abagnale.)
In the movie, Hanratty eventually brings the Abagnale alter ego to book through dogged persistence. The story woven around his relationship with the FBI agent is very largely fiction, done with the kind of affecting trademark charm you would expect of director Steven Spielberg.
However, the outline of Abagnale’s criminal career portrayed is based on a core of undeniable fact (which as the cliché has it is usually stranger than fiction): yes he did masquerade as a copilot, a doctor and a lawyer in order to perpetrate cheque fraud on a previously unheard of scale, due to the non-existent security measures in US banking at the time; he even became a poacher-turned-gamekeeper by working with the authorities to track fraudsters, understanding their mindset way better than career spooks.
That he led the life of riley for two whole years, and in the process led the FBI a merry dance is thanks largely to opportunism and moral ambivalence. Perhaps Abagnale’s justification to himself was that the banks and government could afford it, and screwed the poor man on the street for every penny. So was he a modern-day Robin Hood? I’ll return to this point later.
A good deal of the charm relates to picking “likeable” actors in a star-studded cast, the sort a big name like Spielberg can attract. Chief among these are Leo DiCaprio, who regular readers will know I don’t rate at all as an actor, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen, a very fresh-faced and tooth-braced Amy Adams and French favourite Nathalie Baye. Look carefully and you’ll spot James Brolin, Jennifer Garner and other well-known faces in the background.
Jeff Nathanson‘s script had therefore to ooze charm so the big league players knew they were on to a sure-fire winner, which probably explains why most look happy as Larry in their roles, none more so than Walken. Walken’s career has typically required him to suppress his natural likability, so this role must have given him a great deal of pleasure, not least the dancing scene since I’m told he has demonstrated a flair on a Fatboy Slim video (see here.)
Frank Abagnale Sr, whose failings in life but unshakeable attitude and willingness to cheat the system to make a few bob on the side give his son the inspiration to go for living as a big-time chancer from the point where his parents split – the fraud all happens before the son hits 19. The most influential moment for Abagnale junior is the story Frank Sr always tells – the one about the mouse in the vat of cream working hard to escape and churning the cream to butter (see here.) All this is codswallop of course, but adds to the likability of the film. Not having read the book, I couldn’t tell you if the dad was quite so charismatic in real life – but I suspect not.
I suspect also that the son’s character was designed around DiCaprio, such that he did not have to work too hard – just smile a lot and talk fast, charm the knickers off ladies (including Adams’s Brenda and her wealthy southern parents) and be addicted to the good life his ill-gotten gains win him. All he has to do is change his identity and modus operandi every few months to stay one step ahead of the chasing pack – and this is in essence a cat-and-mouse story where the cat and mouse have a sneaking regard for one another.
To be fair, DiCaprio also looks happy in his role, leaving Hanks to do most of the real acting. Hanks creates a complex persona for Hanratty from the ground up, pinpointing his motivations and highlighting the deceptions in his own life, allegedly the reason for the two characters establishing a mutual bond.
The fictional Hanratty’s deceptions are personal, relating to his family life, or lack of it, and relationship with his daughter. The real truth is that Hanratty is married to his job and on duty 24×7, though he has learned enough that creating a deception accepted by the perp allows Abagnale Jr to be captured, albeit in France as he expands the high life abroad to evade capture. What Shea is like in real life, who knows – possibly less photogenic?
Spielberg has weaved his spell, such that it would be a hard-hearted person who did not find CMIYC entertaining, whatever deceits the director has pulled in the process. Perhaps in the final analysis we enjoy being deceived, much as when a conjuror misdirects our attention and the glamorous assistant heads down the trap door and out of sight.
Were that not the case, criminals could not become folk heroes, however much charm and chutzpah they could demonstrate. Fraud is still fraud! However, it would appear in this case that crime really does pays. From Wikipedia:
“The ending credits reveal that Frank has been happily married for 26 years, has three sons, lives in the Midwest, is still good friends with Carl, has caught some of the world’s most elusive money forgers, and earns millions of dollars each year because of his work creating unforgeable checks.”