Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can is a game of cat and mouse, until it isn’t. Frank Abagnale’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) counterfeit spree across the United States is fun, but it is ultimately filling a deep hole left by the abandonment he feels from his parents. So while Frank’s life becomes more grand and more insane, he has to watch his father’s life crumble and his father’s love distorted into a desire to see his son screw the government making up for the government screwing him.
Frank is like Woody Allen’s Leonard Zelig from Zelig (1983). He’s a chameleon, doing just enough to fit in but staying nowhere long enough to be caught. As a couple years pass, Frank comes close to being captured after he begins to settle down, asking for a woman’s hand in marriage. It’s at this engagement party, to a pleasant girl named Brenda, that Tom Hanks’ FBI agent Carl Hanratty once again tracks Frank down. This effectively ends the life Frank had nurtured into plausibility, and its failure feels inevitable as Frank will always be on the run.
When Frank is finally captured, 6 years after his adventure begins, Carl tells him that his father has died. Frank realizes he has no family, and that he’s completely alone. In a scene that is a bit heavy handed, Frank escapes the FBI one more time, only to run to his mother’s new house where she lives with her new husband and new daughter. Frank stares longingly through the window at the family life he always craved, more so as a child than as a man.
At the end of the day, Frank is still a child even though it’s easy to forget sometimes. When he looks through the window into his mother’s new home, the only person he makes eye contact with is the little girl. Every time he sees his father, he looks more and more like an excited son, holding up a trophy and looking for his father’s pride. Instead his father never gives him what he’s searching for. It’s not always clear what Frank Sr. wants from his son. He doesn’t seem proud of Frank’s achievements, even when it’s unclear that he has gained so much from something illegal. When Carl Hanratty visits Frank Sr., he refuses to give his son up, but it’s not so much because he’s his son but more because Frank Sr. hates the government which took his store, took his house and ruined his life.
The last scene we see between Frank Jr. and Sr., Frank is telling his father about his upcoming engagement party. He wants his father to come because Frank’s mother will be there. Frank doesn’t seem to realize that his parents will never be getting back together. It’s a reminder that he has no one with whom he can be close. Frank is always withholding some information from his father, and he’s certainly withholding the truth to everyone around him. Everyone except Carl Hanratty.
Frank and Carl come face to face in Hollywood, and later they begin to develop a friendly but somewhat distant relationship. Frank enjoys the game, and Carl probably enjoys the chase a little bit too. They seem to talk to each other every Christmas, Frank on the run and Carl in the empty FBI office. The image reinforces the idea that they’re both without family and see in each other something resembling friendship. At the very least, Frank can be honest with Carl. In fact, he’s a little too honest. In multiple conversations Frank gives away important clues about his life that help lead to his capture. In one phone call, Frank repeats his father’s words of wisdom about why the Yankees always win: Because no one can take their eyes off the pinstripes, not just because they have Mickey Mantle. Carl deduces that Frank is from New York, and this is how he ultimately tracks down Frank’s parents, helping lead to Frank’s capture in the small French town which his mother hails from.
In another conversation, Frank asks Carl to stop chasing him because he’s trying to settle down, soon to be married. Carl tells his men to look for engagement announcements in the newspaper in New Orleans, and this is how how he finds Frank, forcing him to go back on the run.
The only real thing in Frank’s life is this constant game between him and Carl. In some ways Carl is a fatherly figure towards Frank, despite trying to arrest him. Carl admires Frank’s ability, and in the end he helps get him a job at the FBI, removing him from prison. It’s not the ideal friendship, but it’s better than anything Frank has otherwise.
Frank is a tragic figure. He’s at once incredibly free and stuck in his own prison. Each lie necessitates another lie, and this is often conveyed in tense but amusing moments. In one instance, as a doctor, he’s called to the ER where he must decide what to do with a kid with a shattered leg. He bullshits his way out of the interaction by pretending to help the other doctors learn simply by asking them what they would do. He asks questions to avoid giving answers, and the technique works pretty much all the time.
Image can go a long way. Like the Yankees’ pinstripes, the pilot’s uniform, the doctor’s uniform and a nice car, confidently projecting yourself into the world seems to open a lot of doors. In this case, it gives Frank a host of opportunities, but it also keeps everyone at a distance. I think I’m just saying the same thing over and over again in different ways. Frank is a chameleon and while that was at first exciting, it starts to wear thin. That’s how we find him looking like a caged rat in a factory in France. He’s isolated and unkempt, that pristine image completely disregarded as he seems to have lost his mind. Early in his adventure, his ability to forge checks and evade detection was based on his ability to talk directly to people and appeal to some sort of longing within them. This often meant a variety of compliments towards others and repeating back to them what they want to hear. In other words, there’s a lot of mimicking. It’s like a child learning to walk by watching someone strut down the street. Again, Frank is just a child, so he learns by observing others and learns from watching old movies. He’s like a robot in that way, not doing something because it means anything to him, just because he’s seen others do it. But in the end, his forgery depends on him running a machine by himself. The human element has been stripped out of the equation.
When Carl finds Frank, he’s manic, conflicted between wanting to escape and wanting to believe Carl when he says there are angry policemen out front who want nothing but to hurt Frank. Frank asks Carl to swear on the life of his daughter that it’s important he surrender to Frank, and when Carl does indeed swear on his daughter’s life, Frank gives himself up. Carl is the only person who’s honest with Frank, and he’s the only person with whom Frank is willing to be honest in return. If it were anyone else, Frank would have run, but part of him is relieved to see Carl.
The music for this film is very playful, and it helps show the film’s perspective, holding Frank in awe. This story is supposed to be exciting and hopeful, and it is, again, until it isn’t. In the hands of another filmmaker, the end of this story might feel like the rug has been pulled out from under the audience. Except with Spielberg and his optimism, the story ends well, showing Frank as a willing participant in FBI activity, and the text scroll telling us that Frank and Carl have remained friends. That’s probably the most important information, given the content of the story, that Frank and Carl are friends, because Frank needs a friend, and hell, Carl probably does too.
In some ways this feels like a familiar character type, the person who throws themselves into their work because they have no family or the person who has no family because they throw themselves into their work. While Frank and Carl are on opposite sides of the law, they’re both lonely and driven. The film makes a point to tell us that Carl is an accomplished FBI employee, but he doesn’t want to settle for a desk job. He likes the chase just as much as Frank likes the escape.