For all his technical wizardry, what always made Steven Spielberg such a successful director was the human element. When E.T. phoned home, we loved him not because he was some marvel of special effects technology, but because Spielberg honed in on what made that character so indomitably human. Recently, the master has faltered. Perhaps he has spent too much time with George Lucas out at the Skywalker Ranch getting girly over the latest technical gadgets, or maybe he just lost his way. Whatever the case, Spielberg’s latest efforts have seemed to be missing some of that intimacy, spending more time instead flaunting digitally spiffed effects. Finally though, he’s returned to form as he whips his camera back in time to tell a story with real wit and intelligence.
Based on the true story of Frank M. Abagnale Jr. and the book he wrote about it, Catch Me If You Can is a portrait of the ultimate conman. Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) was a doctor, a pilot, a lawyer, a Lutheran, and even passed the Louisiana State Bar, all so he could pull off one of the most elaborate and successful check fraud scams in history. He did it all in three years before he turned 19. Spielberg has snatched up that history and turned it into a fabulously charming chase story meticulously set in the sights and sounds of Abagnale’s 1960’s era. His approach is lighthearted and fun, much as you’d expect were the movie truly filmed back in the 60’s, but with a staunch attention to the dark side of these characters lives and the pain that makes them tick.
Abagnale is pursued relentlessly by humorless and determined FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks); based on the real life check-fraud specialist who eventually caught him. In the course of their chase, Hanratty develops an almost paternal relationship with Abagnale, who after all is just a kid. With his home life shattered by the divorce of his parents, whose romantic love-life he’d always idolized, and his father (Christopher Walken) slipping into despair as he’s hounded by the IRS, maybe in some small way Abagnale is drawn to Hanratty as the father figure missing in his life. Hanratty is the man telling him to stop, when his father is too lost and confused in his own troubles to tell him that what he’s doing wrong.
At its heart, Catch Me If You Can is just flat out great storytelling, a reminder that beyond all the hype and recent digital glitz, Spielberg knows how to tell us about people. Capable performances by both Hanks and DiCaprio make his job easy, and Spielberg ably walks a line between quirky, unbelievable fun and soul-searching character depth. This is a movie from Hollywood’s golden age that somehow got lost and ended up in our day trotting into theaters just a couple years late. Despite a dead spot here and there where the film lulls, Spielberg has truly returned to form by simply trying something a little different.
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