Thursday, March 13, 2014

Catch Me If You Can

I teach two college classes -- Composition I & II. One of the assignements I give is to write a movie review. We all watch the same film in class (the students have to come to consensus on it - which is a hoot to watch!) and then they write reviews. I do the same, just because it's fun. Yeah, I'm a writer-geek and proud of it!

Last year we watched Ironman and you can read my review here. Read on for this year's film review.

I recently had occasion to view the semi-biographical movie, Catch Me If You Can. This movie, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio, tells the story of the real-life adventures of Frank Abagnale, Jr. (DiCaprio), a con-artist and master forger and Carl Handratty (Hanks), the FBI agent charged with catching him.

Steven Spielberg has experience telling biographical stories, having already done so with Schindler’s List. His strict attention to detail creates vivid images the audience will long remember. He brings that attention to detail to bear in this movie as well, from using period costumes and settings to the music playing under the scenes.

But he goes further, delving deeply into the parts of the story where reality and truth don’t quite line up. Into places where realism plays against reality. It is when the film presents these moments that it truly shines and moves from the realm of just another popcorn movie into the category of excellence.

Two Franks: Senior and Junior

Frank Abagnale, Jr. is a loveable con-artist. He’s debonair, intelligent, quick-witted and handsome. The audience cheers when he becomes the substitute teacher, loving the respect and obedience he commands from students his own age, simply because he’s dressed in a suit coat and tie and puts authority in his voice.

That acting with authority is a huge part of a grifter’s repertoire and Frank wields it as like its natural-born talent. It isn’t, of course. He learned it from his father, Frank Senior. One of the first father-son moments in the movie is the father using the son to pull a con on a bank to increase his chances of getting the loan he so desperately needs.

In fact, that scene is one of the first where reality and the truth don’t quite line up. Frank the elder wants to arrive at the bank as if he’s a big shot, so he scams a woman into loaning Frank the younger a nice suit so his son can pose as a chauffeur. They arrive in a fancy car and make a great show as if this need for money is a minor setback, nothing more.

But the reality is twofold: one, Frank Senior really needs the money to keep his store or he will go out of business. He’s desperate. And two, the elder Frank doesn’t really know how to pull off a con. Sure he gets the suit for his kid, but once inside the bank, his confidence crumbles when the manager tells him, “No loan.”

Neither of these two, the elder or the younger, like reality very much. They both prefer to live in a world of their own creation. Frank Junior continually attempts to get his parents back together, mostly by suggesting his father can win her back with things (a Cadillac or a trip to Hawaii, for example). His inability to accept this reality is tested again and again and it isn’t until he sees his half-sister in the living room window that he accepts the fact his parents are separated forever.

Frank, Jr. would much rather live in the world he creates with his cons than in the real world as it is. We see this again at the very end of the movie when Frank accepts a job with the FBI. The day-to-day grind (symbolized by the stacks of files that workers pile on Frank’s desk) becomes tiresome and when Frank sees a pilot’s uniform for sale, he takes off. Literally. Only when Carl “catches” him at the airport and tells him look around, that no one’s chasing him, does Frank see another type of life. The thrill of the chase is done and over with. It’s time to face reality and he does.

Frank Senior, on the other hand, never accepts reality. Sure, he accepts the inevitability of his divorce, but at his son’s expense. “Where you going, Frank? Someplace exotic?” is his mantra, the questions he asks his son each time he sees him. He lives vicariously through Frank Junior’s adventures. Even when his son doesn’t contact him, we are given no reason to believe he will change his ways. He’s blamed other people for his troubles for decades (the IRS is “after him”, “They have all the money,” “I wasn’t going to let them take it from me, so I closed it down.”) and we are given no reason to believe he didn’t go to his grave thinking his troubles weren’t his own fault.

Spielberg shows himself to be a master of juggling multiple plot lines in order to tell one, straightforward, linear story. He uses flashbacks throughout the story to tell the story of this father-son relationship so the audience gets the backstory as to why the two are so out of touch with the harsh reality of their lives. We see his parents very much in love in happier times, we see the moment his mother moves out and we see the father confronted by the reality of what his son is doing. In every case, reality and truth don’t quite match. It’s this consistency that makes this a better-than-average film.

Carl Handratty

Carl is the antithesis of Frank Abagnale, Jr. Where Frank thinks quickly on his feet, Carl becomes clumsy and flustered. Frank is smooth and debonair, Carl can’t even tell a knock-knock joke. Frank moves through a world of high class establishments, Carl works in a gray office filled with hard edges and difficult-to-use technology. Where Frank represents the dream, Carl embodies the reality.

Spielberg skillfully juxtapositions these two characters throughout the film, jumping between the stories of each man as one chases the other. The most startling contrast comes when Frank is with the high-priced call girl in the very swanky hotel and Carl is in a dark, gray office lit only by the light of a single harsh light bulb. The dream vs. the reality shown in stark, visual contrast.

However, Frank and Carl have similar disassociations with reality. Toward the end of the movie, we discover Carl is divorced and hasn’t seen his daughter in nearly two decades. This surprises Frank because Carl had earlier referred to as a little girl. Yet she is an adult. Carl justifies his lie by saying she’ll always be little to him because he has no memories of her growing up. Adding in this bit of information isn’t trivial. Frank and Carl eventually become lifelong friends; in order to believe that this could be possible, Spielberg needed to show us that it didn’t matter which side of the law they were on – the two men were more similar than different.

Brenda Strong

It’s worth noting this character, even if she has a small role in the film. Brenda Strong (Amy Adams) is the woman who finally catches the heart of Frank Abagnale, Jr. For her, he decides to settle down, be one person—Frank Connors—and lead the life of a normal man. He crams for the Louisiana Bar exam and passes it, even though his courtroom style comes straight from Perry Mason. It is for her that he begs Carl to stop chasing him, to leave him alone now.

Of course, Carl can’t do that. Laws have been broken and restitution must be made. Brenda ends up being used as a patsy to catch Frank, a ploy he sees through, escaping by using several of the techniques of the con he’s picked up along the way.

But Spielberg makes us feel sorry for Brenda. She’s stuck in a hard place, having already been thrown out of her house for a mistake she made once before. She loves Frank, but one can imagine a scene not in the movie—a scene where her father presents her an ultimatum once more: help the FBI or move out of the house again. Even the way she stands on the sidewalk waiting for Frank shows us an unsecure, scared young woman. Because of Spielberg’s framing of the shot, we do not blame Brenda for being the bait, we empathize with her instead.

Final notes

The setting of the movie is in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s – a time period I remember well. While I don’t remember Mr. Abagnale’s appearance on “To Tell the Truth” I do remember the show – and Kitty Carlisle. She was iconic to the show, asking hard questions in her attempts to discover the truth. She had a biting wit that often went to the heart of the matter. The blending of actual footage showing her asking the questions with the actors pretending to be Frank Abagnale, Jr. was seamless – and I looked hard. Spielberg used the same video recording techniques to match the styles. It was so seamless I still don’t know if the other two pretending to be Frank were present-day actors or the actual men from the 1970’s show. IMDB does not provide a separate listing for either of them, although both Joe Garigiola and Kitty are listed as cast members of Catch Me If You Can.*

John William’s music choices were spot-on for the film. “Embraceable You”, the song his parents dance to in their living room, is a wonderfully romantic song to set as background to the story of how they met and fell in love. “The Girl From Ipanema,” a light, frothy song played during the segment at the Tropicana Hotel, changes to the chase music when Carl realizes his unsub is still in the building, clueing the audience in that something is afoot.

In fact, this chase music, a clarinet melody played in short, quick notes, is set up during the film’s opening sequence, where the entire story is played out in stark shadows. It returns each time Carl gets a clue and moves a step closer to capturing Frank: when the waiter gives him the comic book clue and he realizes the person he’s looking for is a kid, at the father’s apartment when Carl notices a return address for Frank, at Frank’s mom’s house when Carl sees Frank’s picture in the yearbook—and again at the engagement party when they miss Frank by only a few seconds. The skillful use of this audio clue continues to build excitement in the audience.

Stephen Spielberg’s movie, Catch Me if You Can, might be about a criminal, but it is entertaining. He skillfully interweaves the lives of these characters, using the contrasts of reality and truth to tell a story about three men who, despite their differences, also have many similar traits. Through the use of realism in his movie, we believe these people are real and that their lives are well-represented. A good movie that's better than an average popcorn flick!

NOTE: According to Wikipedia, all three actors playing Frank, Jr. in this segment were actors. 

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