(2002) dir. Steven Spielberg
viewed: 01/18/03 at Park Cinemas, Paso Robles, CA
Spielberg’s biopic of Frank Abagnale, Jr.’s life as a con artist extrordinaire is poppy, entertaining Hollywood fare, quite enjoyable to be honest.
The film reminded me somewhat of Ted Demme’s Blow (2001), another biographical film set in a similar period, also following an idealized hero whose greatest achievements were outside of the law. The parallels are interesting in that both Blow‘s George Jung and Catch Me If You Can‘s Frank Abagnale, Jr.’s drives are inspired by the failures of their fathers as “legitimate” American small business owners. They both maintain strong emotional connections to their fathers throughout the periods of each characters’ personal infamy, never being “judged” by them while being somehow ostracized by their mothers and by contemporary society at large.
Both characters are also ultimately captured and jailed by the society which they have operated outside of, and for both films their “outsider” qualities (excelling in illegal activities) are celebrated largely and their ultimate incarceration is viewed sympathetically. In this sense, both films critique the mainstream American culture of the period as unhip, bland, and conformist and almost advocate the exploits of their protagonists.
Demme portrayed Jung as almost a classic American capitalist, whose only major problem was that his industry was illegal. Spielberg portrays Frank Abagnale, Jr. as an opportunist who manages to subvert existing systems, in some ways showing what a sham that they are. Spielberg’s critiques are not harsh, though, as he tries to humanize the representatives of the society to which Frank is opposed, namely in the figure of Carl Hanratty.
Hanratty is as square as they come. As played by Tom Hanks, he almost resembles the Joe Friday character played by Dan Akyroyd in Dragnet (1987) (another Tom Hanks film), which lampooned the ultimate square Jack Webb. These cultural cross-connections may be tenuous, but they struck me. In many Hollywood films, the FBI agent is represented by bland, suited figures, often characterless or even “evil.” Hanratty has these bland characteristics but is also shown as sympathetic by his side-story of his divorce.
The world of the FBI, if seen mainly in their fluorescent-lit, box-like offices, represents the ultimate of conformity. It is ultimately to this world that Frank must submit himself, the ultimate punishment not being 10+ years of solitary confinement, but rather the loss of individuality and confinement within the social structure that he once made look so foolish. There is clearly a point in the film when Spielberg seems to indicate this pessimistic end for his outlaw hero.
However, ultimately, Spielberg seems to indicate that his acceptance of this life is not such a bad thing. Frank successfully applies his criminal skills to his career as an fraud consultant, and as a results lives happily ever after. The film flirts with the endorsement of a relatively subversive message only to subvert itself and uphold the society that it would seem to wish to critique.
Demme’s Jung receives no such redemption and arguably never “learns his lesson.” His last shot at redemption is upended and he is sent to prison to age and die, though the audience, I believe is meant to sympathize with this, not necessarily to agree 100% with society’s justice.