Frank has to change schools, and he’s not adjusting well. In fact, that’s where he tells his first lie, a whopper so big that people believed it. He pretended he was the new substitute teacher in the French class. He got away with it, for a while, because his mother was French. His father loved to tell the romantic story of how they met in a little village after the war, but his war bride, it turns out, was a little too French. A little too interested in l’amour, with one of her husband’s best friends, no less. Leonardo comes in early from school one day, not exactly catching them in flagrante delicto, but the intent is clear.
Soon afterwards, his parents ask him to make that nightmare decision of choosing which one of them he wants to live with, and he simply runs. Runs away to a place where he doesn’t have to make decisions like that. Runs away to figure out a way, somehow, to survive on his own. Runs away in some mad, desperate hope that he can bring the family back together, and retrieve that happy home life they all once knew. Sadly, it’s the misplaced fantasy of many a product of broken homes. It’s just that this particular young man had a real gift that even he didn’t know about, until he needed it.
Frank Abagnale Jr. managed, in the course of a few short years, to impersonate successfully an airline pilot in Miami, an emergency room physician in Atlanta and a prosecuting attorney in Louisiana. Along the way, he managed to become very good at fraud: first simply writing bad checks, then kiting them, then forging them, or juggling some elegant combination of all three. Because he was just a kid, still, with little maturity and no sense of direction, he made mistakes. He got greedy. He indulged in some conspicuous consumption. He maintained contact with his father. He drew the attention of the Feds. And that, ultimately, turned out to be his undoing, but in an ironic way, also his deliverance.
Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) is the FBI agent who first began tracking this talented con artist. He pursued him with the dogged determination of a man who had nothing better to do on Christmas Eve than still be working on the case. Hanratty was divorced, with a daughter out-of-state whom he rarely saw. His job was his life. Even his co-workers considered him humorless. But he would not give up. Even when he was embarrassed by letting Abagnale slip through his own fingers, still, he kept chasing. And Abagnale found out that though there was fun in the chase, there was something else in him that longed to form some kind of connection with the one man who probably understood him better than anybody.
“Catch Me If You Can” tells this story backwards, so that there is no suspense about whether Abagnale is going to get caught. We all know he is. So our interest has to lie in the character development and in the telling of the story and in the surprise aftermath. Along the way, we get to enjoy glimpsing the ’60s and ’70s again, through the cars and clothes and music. We witness a little furtive romance, and we begin to see that Frank Abagnale, the wanted criminal, is little more than a lost boy; a very bright one, who desperately needs someone to stop him, to hug him and to assure him that everything really is going to be all right. And then to help him find his way home.
Hanks is excellent in this nuanced role of the nerdy fed with the instincts of a predator but the heart of a nurturer. DeCaprio employs an elusive persona, both with his person and his presence. Add some beguiling secondary performances, such as Christopher Walken as the beleaguered father, and you have the ingredients for a well-formed drama, even more interesting because it’s a true story.
Ron Salfen is pastor, Westminster Presbyterian Church, Dallas.