Based on the autobiography of the same name by Frank Abagnale, ‘Catch Me If You Can’ is perhaps the most accessible entry among Steven Spielberg’s films for older audiences. This hypnotically colorful movie breezes through its two-hour runtime, despite a non-linear plot structure. It embodies the innate restlessness of its primary protagonist and explores his crimes and masks through an unmistakably subjective view. Although the film enunciates multiple times the extent of Frank’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) offenses, it also portrays him as a deeply sympathetic character. After all, he is still a teenager and, like many other Spielbergian heroes, a product of a broken home. SPOILERS AHEAD.
Catch Me If You Can Plot Synopsis
The film begins with Saul Bass-influenced opening credits and a pulpy score by John Williams. The first sequence of the movie revolves around Frank taking part in a bizarre quiz show where his various crimes and the punishment he received for them are listed. The movie follows two drastically different narratives.
If one focuses on depicting Frank’s life from 1963 onwards and how he transformed from a high-school student to a world-famous crook, the other showcases his life in 1969, after he is captured by the French police. Frank grows up in New Rochelle, New York, worshipping the very ground that his father, Frank Abagnale Sr. (Christopher Walken), walks on. He inherits the roguish salesman charm from his father and a sense of airy detachment from his mother. The combination of these two traits makes him an exceptionally capable and dangerous conman. After finding out that his parents are divorcing, Frank runs away from home and keeps running until he has the FBI hot on his trail.
When Frank was still in school, he fooled his entire class into believing that he was their French language teacher. Empowered by a vivid imagination and quick wit, he makes a natural transition from harmless pranks to actual illegal activities. In a few years, Frank impersonates a Pan American World Airways pilot, a Georgia doctor, and a Louisiana parish prosecutor. He also commits four-million-dollars worth of check forgeries.
The FBI unit chasing Frank is led by Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), a fictional character based on the real-life G-man, Joseph Shea. The constant cat-and-mouse game takes a heavy toll on both of them. Frank briefly falls in love with an impressionable nurse named Brenda (Amy Adams). Hoping to turn over a new leaf, he successfully takes the Louisiana State Bar exam and starts working with Brenda’s father, Roger Strong (Martin Sheen).
But again, Carl finds him, and again, Frank has no choice but to run. His road ultimately leads him to his mother’s native town in Montrichard, France, where he is arrested by the French police. The two narratives merge into one when Carl comes to the Marseille prison to take him back home. During the flight, Carl tells Frank that his father has died, prompting the other man to escape custody one more time. Frank is eventually found at the premises of his mother’s new home.
Catch Me If You Can Ending: Why Did Frank Return to Continue His Work For the FBI?
During the years that Carl was pursuing him, an unacknowledged bond formed between the two men, stemming from the profound loneliness of their respective existences. After Frank’s arrest, a US court gives him a 12-year prison sentence. Carl often comes to see him at the prison. During one such visit, he realizes what a valuable asset for the FBI Frank can potentially be after he accurately guesses that a bank teller is one of the culprits just by seeing a check.
Carl arranges for Frank to be released to the FBI’s custody. Frank subsequently begins working under Carl in the bank fraud division of the bureau. But he soon grows restless because of the sheer amount of work he has to do. Since he began his life as a confidence scam artist, he hasn’t done any honest work. So, the tasks that Carl and the other FBI officials assign to him quickly become overwhelming, and Frank’s flight-or-fight response gets triggered again.
In the film, Carl asks Frank multiple times how he cheated in the bar exam. When he finds the other man at the airport in a pilot uniform, he asks that question again. As Carl tells Frank, it’s always easier to live a lie. Carl didn’t want to admit that his wife has remarried, and he seldom sees his daughter because admitting personal failure is always hard.
On the other hand, Frank has gotten used to both the familiarity and thrill of his crimes. The tediousness and boredom of his work for the FBI make him miss his old life, and he desperately wants to go back to that, despite knowing very well that he can’t. Carl lets him board the plane, believing that Frank will return. Although he does suffer through some moments of anxiety, Carl is eventually proven correct. Frank comes back and resumes his work.
Carl also gets the answer to the question that he has been asking Frank for a while. According to Frank, he didn’t cheat. He studied for two weeks and passed the exam. This is likely true. At this point, Frank has no reason to lie to Carl. It also validates Carl’s actions to get Frank out of prison. He has always known that the teenager is brilliant. But now, he is sure that Frank will thrive as a normal person. As the end credits reveal, Frank went on to become a renowned security consultant who earned millions of dollars every year.
Where is Home?
Spielberg has never been a filmmaker who approaches his characters with severe objectivity. On the contrary, he infuses his protagonists with certain aspects of his own personality, making them easily identifiable as Spielbergian. Frank Abagnale Jr. is no exception. He oscillates between mischievous immaturity and ageless charisma and is driven by a desperate desire to regain his home. For Frank, home is what the Abagnale household used to be before Frank Sr. got into trouble with the IRS.
Frank’s inability to accept change is one of the tragic aspects of his character. He runs away from home because he doesn’t want to deal with his parents’ divorce. When he returns to New Rochelle after his father’s death, he discovers that his mother has created a new home for herself, complete with a new husband and daughter. For all intents and purposes, she has truly moved on with her life, leaving even Frank behind. When Carl comes to arrest him, Frank begs him to take him away from there. A truth from which he has been running away for the past few years has brutally revealed itself to him.
Read More: Movies Like Catch Me If You Can