'Catch Me If You Can' might not be the best Steven Spielberg film (although it's up there), but one could definitely make the argument that 'Catch Me If You Can' is the most Steven Spielberg film. It's got everything: Daddy issues, framing devices, damaged childhoods, the jaunty cinematography of Janusz Kaminksi, a parade of attractive but largely unknown brunettes with foreign accents of various origins, etc ... all wrapped up in the irresistible veneer of grand entertainment. The wide-eyed discovery of 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind,' the nimble solemnity of 'Schindler's List,' and the gleefully kinetic pursuit of 'Minority Report' -- this flick has it all. 'Catch Me If You Can' isn't just a Spielberg movie, it's every Spielberg movie.
When he was just 16 years old, Frank Abagnale Jr. ran away from his breaking Rochester home to become one of the country's most successful and elusive paper hangers, assuming any number of different identities in the hopes that the inertia of constantly adopting new lives might spare him from ever coming to grips with his own. Abagnale gave himself dozens of different personas before he was finally apprehended, but he'll best be remembered as Spielberg's ultimate proxy.
Perhaps no sequence in the film better captures its sheer Spielbergian quality than the one in which Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio) narrowly escapes the clutches of the FBI. By this point, Abagnale has been on the run for quite a while (read: 105 minutes), and the closest thing he has to a friend or father is Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), the workaholic agent who's been on his tail since he bounced his first check. Their plucky game of cat and mouse is founded upon a dual sense of yearning and kismet -- Abagnale needs to run, Hanratty needs to chase him, and neither man can bear to look over his shoulder at the life he's so desperate to avoid. (Hanratty wears a wedding ring, but he has clearly forsaken the chaos of family life for the clear-cut world of cops and robbers.)
The way Hanratty stalks Abagnale around the country, it's more of a courting process than a criminal pursuit, and they quickly arrive at the mutual but unspoken understanding that they're soul mates (or maybe constants). But then Abagnale meets a young Amy Adams (so adorably innocent and jocular here that she makes her princess in 'Enchanted' look like Tura Satana in 'Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!'), and -- desperate for a breather -- decides to marry her. Spielberg renders the whole thing rather preposterously ill-fated, and it almost feels like something of a relief when Hanratty busts up the wedding ceremony and initiates a new chapter of the manhunt.
Abagnale instructs his new bride to meet him at Miami International Airport, but when he gets there he sees that the FBI has already arrived. Hanratty swarms the place with agents, knowing full well that his presence there means that Abagnale will be compelled to use that same airport for his solo escape. Hanratty is asked how he knows that Abagnale won't try to drive to airports in New York or Atlanta, and he responds, "Because I'm not in New York. I'm not in Atlanta."
So, how does Abagnale slip through the swarm of FBI agents unnoticed? By calling as much attention himself as humanly possible. Abagnale's father (a flawless Christopher Walken) once told him that the Yankees always win because the other teams are distracted by their pinstripes; Abagnale escapes by putting that idea into action, much like Spielberg has become an incomparably beloved filmmaker by doing the very same thing. Enlisting some local schoolgirls to serve as "flight attendants," Abagnale surrounds himself with a phalanx of smirking beauties and brazenly strolls right past the men chasing him. The agents take their eyes off the ball for a split-second, but it's long enough -- they're so mesmerized by the gloss and flow of it all that it's not until later that they register what happened.
Leo and his posse pop out of their stretch limo with all the subtlety of an advancing army as Frank Sinatra invites us to fly away. Kaminski's camera glides down the airport's main hall, poring over the immaculately nostalgic sets and costumes. Movement and momentum are the name of the game. The camera refuses to stay still, as if all the fun is suspended only by centrifugal force. Because ultimately 'Catch Me if You Can' is much more of a shark than 'Jaws' ever was -- relentlessly pushing forward so as not to die. The movie's title isn't one character teasing another, but rather both Abagnale and Hanratty sticking their tongues out at the suffocating familial realities they're constantly trying to outrun.
The scene's sweet pastiche of palm trees, pastels, and that orange Florida sun doesn't just keep things light, it keep things busy. And it's through the insistence of these elements that 'Catch Me If You Can' becomes the epitome of Spielberg's art. The film is rocket-fueled by the same propulsive sentimentality for which Spielberg is so often mocked, but the innocence and whimsical kitsch of this particular story encourage the storied filmmaker to indulge in his instincts like never before. 'Catch Me If You Can' finds Spielberg up to all his old tricks, but Abagnale's giddy adventure enables the filmmaker to mechanize his fetish for schmaltziness. If 'Saving Private Ryan' leaned on easy emotion to temper its tragedy, 'Catch Me If You Can' relies on propulsive joy to deepen its easy emotions. Because while Abagnale and Hanratty are able to ignore what they're running from, Spielberg never allows his audience to forget.
Crammed between all of the fun set pieces is one of the most maudlin movies the Bearded One has ever made, and the drama of it all is that his characters are trying so hard to ignore that. The film's breezy inertia fools Abagnale and Hanratty into thinking that they're actually escaping all the stuff they're so desperate to leave behind, but we know that they're just running in circles. It fools them into thinking they're in a caper, but they're actually the stars of a divorce drama -- this scene could have been their big reconciliation kiss if they weren't too busy flirting. When the men inevitably collide and realize their mutual need for each other, the ensuing tsunami of schmaltz doesn't feel like a cop-out -- it feels like acceptance.