Revisiting Steven Spielberg's Undersung Masterpiece, 'Catch Me If You Can'

In some ways, it is overlooked precisely because it was directed by a master like Spielberg: 'Catch Me If You Can' would be anyone else's undisputed greatest work.

By Ciara Moloney

Catch Me If You Can is a well-loved but still underappreciated film: the kind of movie that, were it made by almost anyone else, would be rightfully thought of as their masterpiece. But it was made by Steven Spielberg, who has made so many masterpieces that Catch Me If You Can gets lost in the shuffle. But at almost two decades’ distance, it stands out as a shining bright spot of the latter part of Spielberg’s career. 

It is one of the films that made me fall in love with cinema. It’s one of the films that I watched as a kid that really blew up what I thought films could be and do. I have watched it so many times, and I’m always taken off-guard by how extraordinarily well-made it is: impeccably structured, bursting with extraordinary performances, and so goddamn exciting. Just as thrilling as the first time, every time. 

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Frank Abagnale Jr., a teenager turned conman who over the course of the film successfully poses as a Pan Am pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer. Frank has a natural instinct for the con – when he starts at a new school, he passes himself off as a substitute teacher – but when his parents announce their divorce, he becomes a pro. He runs away from home and lives off cheque fraud and confidence tricks, carefully absorbing all the information he can – about banking, about airlines, about what people expect and how to give it to them – to let him pull off his next con. His dad (Christopher Walken), a tax cheat whose life began to crumble around him and his family when the IRS came knocking, used to tell him that the Yankees always win because the other team can’t stop staring at the pinstripes on their uniforms. This becomes a guiding light of Frank’s life: he is always striving to have the brightest, shiniest pinstripes in the business, so no-one will catch onto his plays. 

Eventually Frank attracts the attention of the FBI, and in particular, the attention of Special Agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks). Carl actually catches Frank at one point, but Frank pretends to be a secret service agent who just arrested the actual Frank – and slinks off, no problem, with Carl catching on just a moment too late. Frank and Carl are a pretty classic cat-and-mouse duo – every moment where Frank wriggles out of a trap just in time or where Carl solves another piece of the puzzle is equally thrilling – and fascinating mirrors to one another. Where Frank cons to impossibly recapture a life he’s lost – a life where his parents are together and in love – Carl tries to catch him to distract from the life he’s lost: the one where he still lives with his wife and daughter, who he still pictures as a four-year-old girl all these years later. Both men are trying to escape a painful reality.

DiCaprio and Hanks are both fantastic, but it’s the supporting cast that really shines. Christopher Walken’s turn as Frank Sr. is one of the finest performances of his career. Equally enamoured of a kind of Calvinist bootstraps ethic and can’t-stop-staring-at-the-pinstripes valorisation of appearance, he has these stock anecdotes and stories he repeats that Frank Jr. knows word for word. He clings to them as a form of denial, bolstering Frank Jr.’s fantasies in the process: the two of them exchange parts of the story of how Frank Sr. met Frank Jr.’s mother, even as the marriage is long disintegrated. He repeatedly tells a story of two mice dropped into a bucket of cream, and while one of them gave up and drowned, the other struggled so hard he churned it to butter and walked out – and insists that he is that second mouse, despite his evident drowning. Later, when he knows that Frank Jr. is a conman, he doesn’t indulge his son’s fantasies of their family being put back together, but it’s not because he’s recoiling in horror. He’s proud that the US government is scared of his son, sure they’ll never catch him. Frank Jr. begs him to ask him to stop. He won’t do it. 

The smaller parts are just as stacked, from Amy Adams as Frank’s one-time fiancée, blushing and covering the braces on her teeth, to Martin Sheen as her sometimes cold, sometimes loving father, to Jennifer Garner as an almost intimidatingly elegant call girl, her every word pulsing with things unsaid, to Elizabeth Banks as a giggly Southern bank teller. Nathalie Baye plays Frank’s mother Paula with an appealing naivete, trying to pay off Frank’s scams with a cheque when the feds come calling because she thinks he can’t have stolen more than a hundred dollars or so, that sharply contrasts Frank Sr.’s nauseating encouragement. Paula is a small part, but Baye really makes you feel that her life is much bigger than the part of it that we see – both her earlier life in France and her new one, remarried with a baby daughter. 

Catch Me If You Can has all the thrill of a great caper, and it would be a great film on the strength of that alone. Watching someone in a movie pull off a con – as all the moving parts snap into place and all the planning pays off, when it goes wrong and they pull it off anyway – is one of the greatest joys in cinema, from Le Cercle Rouge to The Sting to Ocean’s Eleven. But Catch Me If You Can is rich with so much more than that. It’s called Catch Me If You Can in part because it’s a cat-and-mouse chase between Frank and Carl, but Frank was running long before Carl started chasing after him. He’s running away from his past, his present, from reality. From himself. He changes his name over and over to keep the cons going. It’s about trying to create a life pasted together from TV shows and magazines and snatches of the past, and how that might be all the American Dream ever was. 

“This is not a major Spielberg film,” Roger Ebert wrote when Catch Me If You Can was released, “although it is an effortlessly watchable one.” But I think the only real reason Catch Me If You Can isn’t classed as “major” Spielberg is because it’s such a crowded field. It’s a very special film, an undulled spark of pure delight. Even after all this time, the reveal of how Frank passed the bar exam makes me grin just thinking about it. He studied.