Catch Me If You Can is possibly Steven Spielberg's last absolutely great movie. There are movies to come which have a lot of things which I like, but Catch Me If You Can is almost perfect.
Just as Minority Report had a youthful verve, so Catch Me If you Can perfectly represents this same energy. Running is the obvious visual metaphor that runs through these films, but Catch Me If You Can also had a production ethos that saw Spielberg happily returning to the kind of economies that he had started out with in TV and on his first TV movie Duel. It helped to once more have a star on board in the form of Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays real life con man Frank Abagnale, the youngest man to ever appear on the FBI's most wanted list, alongside Tom Hanks as the FBI agent Carl Hanratty who pursues him. For once, John Williams score is released from its historic seriousness and is an airy jazzy sound reminiscent of Henry Mancini and appropriate to the whip-smart jet set caper Spielberg creates. The animated title sequence has something of the Pink Panther to it as well.
As much as the movie will avoid anything like sentiment, there is a beautifully subtle grounding to everything to come in the relationship between young Frank and his father, played with customary aplomb by Christopher Walken. Watching his father on the slide and the family being torn apart by divorce, Frank runs away. He's already tried his hand at imposture while at school - pretending to be a supply teacher at a new school, where in fact he was supposed to be a new student. Now, he impersonates an airline pilot and uses the disguise to cash cheques, chat up girls and get access to hotels and restaurants. DiCaprio is magnificent, sliding between the boyish innocent who has the moxy to push his luck and a quick-witted con artist, who is quick to spy a way of gaming the system. Behind this all is the urge to reunite his family and in particular to impress his father, the one man who remains unconvinced.
By contrast, Hanks is a grumpy paper pusher whose colleagues are unconvinced what they are doing is particularly important. Soon locked in a symbiosis, Carl needs Frank to justify the importance of his job, while Frank needs Carl almost as a surrogate father figure, someone to impress, someone who is at least aware of what he is doing.
We know the end already, via flash forwards right at the top of the film but the narrative is light on its feet and keeps Frank ahead of the chase until he is finally tracked down. As well as a pilot also pretends to be a doctor and a lawyer, along the way finding time to become engaged to a wonderful Amy Adams. Frank in many ways mirrors Spielberg's own trajectory. The son of divorced parents, Spielberg is also consciously a man who was raised by TV. Frank learns his roles by watched TV dramas - 'Do you concur?' he asks another doctor, copying Dr Kildare - and inhabits cliches as a way of getting by. The idea of impersonation and its relationship to fraud has also been a shadow on Spielberg's career, an insecurity played out. A sense of getting away with it. No doubt the need for parental and specifically paternal approval is the one genuinely heartfelt moment in the film.
The scope and speed of production shows Spielberg at his best. His visual storytelling has never been better and this is one of his funniest films, helped by the central performances as well as an overall fantastic ensemble. The design elements are also state of the art, with an obvious delight taken in the period detail. Ultimately, we like Frank because we're him when we're in the cinema. In one scene, Frank watches Sean Connery in Goldlfinger and immediately goes and gets himself the exact same suit and an Aston Martin. What better fantasy than being Leonardo DiCaprio pretending to be 007?
The rush would have to stop somewhere. Spielberg had completed a breathtaking three films, with both Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can coming out the same year. The next movie however would see both the energy levels and the quality come to a grinding halt.
John Bleasdale is a writer. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, Il Manifesto, as well as CineVue.Com and theStudioExec.com. He has also written a number of plays, screenplays and novels.