For someone taking a casual glance at Steven Spielberg’s storied filmography, 2002’s Catch Me If You Can could be easy to overlook. At the dawn of the new millennium, it came hot on the heels of two larger science fiction excursions, and seems to be a charming enough true-crime thriller exploring the after effects of divorce. It seems like just another movie in a long line of films unpacking the dissolution of the American family. But its power lies beyond that cursory reading.

Revisiting Catch Me If You Can illuminates some of the existential consternation so many of us are experiencing through the covid-19 crisis. On its surface, it’s a rollicking caper flick, one of the most stylish and effervescent exercises in Spielberg’s oeuvre. But it also captures the nature of American identity and how inexorably our self-worth is entangled with our labor, with what we do to survive in this world.

Digging into the nitty-gritty of Frank Abagnale’s real life story, of a young and prolific con artist, paints a simpler picture of white collar crime and how much more beguiling society finds the legal transgressions of white men bucking the system. Perhaps had his story been told in a post-”Sopranos” world, some streaming platform would have a multi-season exploration of his psyche. But Spielberg and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson centralize his biography and its many white lies into a fable, a tragicomic game of cat and mouse between two men from broken family units.

On the one side there’s Abagnale himself (Leonardo DiCaprio), a teenager in the early ‘60s masquerading as the potential versions of his future self he wishes he could be. When Frank’s parents (Christopher Walken and Nathalie Baye) split up over his father’s inability to maintain the lifestyle his mother had grown accustomed to, he runs away from home, developing a series of fraud schemes to help him survive. First, he’s just floating bad checks, but for the legitimacy necessary to sell his larger plots, he begins cosplaying as a Pan Am pilot, a doctor, and finally, a lawyer.

He’s a globe-trotting womanizer in the James Bond vein, but really, he’s a child making manifest the man he thinks his father would want to be. The man his father couldn’t be. It’s easily one of DiCaprio’s finest turns, believably portraying Frank through decades of life. He truly captures that this isn’t a man stealing to get what he wants, but a boy struggling with the idea of even being a man, beyond understanding that a man is more than the job he performs. When he tells his father to ask him to stop, he receives no such plea. Walken is superb as a man relishing his son’s trouncing of the FBI when he himself had his career wrecked by one of their routine investigations.

On the other end, there’s the only FBI man committed enough to catch Frank in the end. Tom Hanks is reliably great in his turn as Carl Hanratty, the dogged agent who goes from chasing Frank to fulfilling a strange patriarchal role in his life. Hanratty, too, is isolated from his family, divorced from his wife and rarely seeing his daughter. He throws himself into work because he has nothing else.

In today’s economic climate, so many unemployed folks are struggling to define themselves without the financial stability and centering routine of work to give their formless lives comforting shape. Perhaps that’s part of why the scenes of Abagnale creating a “career” from little more than naivete and sheer force of will play so well in 2020. But that perspective alone would do serious disservice to the visual panache Spielberg puts on display.

Earlier in 2002’s Minority Report (and again a few years later in Munich), Spielberg does a sterling impression of his contemporary Brian De Palma, but here it’s Martin Scorsese he playfully apes. The comical and boyish excess of Abagnale’s teenage exploits are the closest Spielberg’s ever come to matching Marty’s maximalist love of gangster culture. It’s Goodfellas if all the booze were ice cold glasses of milk.

The picture has a real motion to it, where the familial interludes slow down and hyper-fixate on the nostalgia for a home that no longer exists, before bursting back onto the road, into the sky, as Frank is perpetually running away from his past and from the truth. Unlike other similar genre pieces, Spielberg, for all his sentimentality, never lets us forget that Frank’s charade is little more than a prolonged daydream.

To further sell that sad reality, the “happy” ending Spielberg spends the last 20 minutes sketching out for the viewer is Frank finding some kind of peace in working for the FBI that pursued him so harshly and helped ruin his father. He’s still trapped in the same system where no shred of happiness can be found unless it’s shackled to a grind.

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