This June, Establishing Shot will feature a miniseries we’re calling Here’s Looking at You, 2002 as we take a look back at films celebrating their 20th anniversary this year. Up first, we have Jesse Pasternack’s appreciation of a Steven Spielberg classic that deserves a reappraisal.
It might seem strange to describe Catch Me If You Can (2002) as underrated. When it was released twenty years ago, it made $352.1 million on a $52 million budget. Catch Me If You Can was also a critical success, as evidenced by its 96% fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes. This film even spawned a musical adaptation which ran on Broadway and won a Tony Award for Best Actor. How can a film which achieved so many different levels of success be regarded as “underrated?”
The answer is that, despite said forms of success, Catch Me If You Can is viewed as a somewhat less important work in the oeuvre of its director, Steven Spielberg. That’s not surprising when you think about just a few of the films he has directed: Jaws (1975), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Schindler’s List (1993). A colorful comedy like Catch Me If You Can may seem like a bit of a trifle when placed alongside these iconic works of cinema.
Even the film’s positive reviews reflect this attitude. Roger Ebert qualified his praise for it by describing that it is “not a major Spielberg film,” and the San Francisco Chronicle’s critic Mick LaSalle noted in his mostly positive review that it was “not Spielberg’s best movie.” These reviews often focus on the high entertainment value of this film (Ebert referred to it as “endlessly watchable”) but don’t praise it as a work on par with Spielberg’s previous films.
Catch Me If You Can, much like its con man protagonist, remains misunderstood. It deserves to occupy a prime place in Spielberg’s body of work. It connects two of the main sides of Spielberg’s identity as an artist — the showman capable of technically dazzling setpieces and the serious-minded artist interested in exploring the complexities of human identity — into a coherent whole to make a movie which is as entertaining and moving as it was when it first came out. In addition, this film deserves recognition as being, at least until The Fablemans (2023) comes out, Spielberg’s most personal film.
This movie tells the (mostly) true story of Frank William Abagnale, Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio). From 1964-1969, he traveled around America impersonating different identities and professions. Amongst other things, he pretended to be a pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer. He stole millions of dollars thanks to his knack for printing fraudulent checks. But as dogged FBI agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) closes in on him, Abagnale finds that his run of good luck may be expiring.
For me, Catch Me If You Can contains some of Spielberg’s best work as a filmmaker. He gives even minor moments a kinetic flair through his visually dynamic cinematic style. An early example is when Abagnale is trying to escape from a French prison. Spielberg and director of photography Janusz Kaminski (a frequent collaborator) initially film it from a high angle, to further emphasize how weak and exhausted Abagnale’s prison time has made him. Most filmmakers would stop there. But what Spielberg and Kaminski do instead is to swoop the camera down and bring it close to Frank to make his struggle feel more visceral. When he gives up, Spielberg and Kaminski pull the camera back, a visual punctuation which ends the scene on a perfect note of helplessness.
This film is full of such moments in which Spielberg and Kaminski use camera movement to create a sense of visual dynamism. For instance, most movies would have a static shot of a character talking at a phone booth. But in this one, Spielberg and Kaminski breezily zoom in on Hanratty as he tells a colleague an important piece of information. It’s a brief scene, but the zoom adds a sense of excitement to it that conveys the thrill that Hanratty feels because he has learned something about Abagnale. This brief shot shows that there is no detail too small for Spielberg and his collaborators to enliven with a quick zoom or a perfectly calibrated tracking shot.
At the same time, many of the film’s most dazzling visual moments are the result of patience and precision. My favorite is a two-minute shot that happens after Abagnale has realized that his mother Paula (Nathalie Baye) is cheating on his father with their family friend Jack Barnes (James Brolin). In contrast to other moments in this film, everything about the camera movements in this scene are subtle and particular. They consist mostly of subtle pans which accentuate Paula’s frantic efforts to please and Abagnale’s deep sadness. That scene blew me away when I was seven (I convinced my mom to let me watch it as ably as Abagnale convinced people that he was a pilot) and it continues to be a sterling example of how some of the most spectacular scenes can consist of only excellent filmmaking and brilliant performances.
That scene also gets at another important aspect of the film, which is its serious side. Catch Me If You Can is so much fun to watch, but Spielberg and his collaborators never neglect to portray the pain that Abagnale feels. Much of that impact comes from DiCaprio’s sterling performance as Abagnale. He was 28 when he shot it but he feels completely convincing as a teenager who loves his dad and just wants his family to be whole again. In addition, Spielberg and writer Jeff Nathanson make Hanratty feel less like a mustache-twirling villain and more of a three-dimensional antagonist by emphasizing how his brilliance and dogged devotion to his job have made him as lonely as Abagnale.
Catch Me If You Can is also a major Spielberg film because of how personal it is to its director. Aside from elements of E.T. and an unmade semi-autobiographical musical called Reel to Reel (written by Gary David Goldberg, the creator of Family Ties), Spielberg had never made or considered making a film dealing with his life so directly as he did in this one. At a Directors Guild of America event with Martin Scorsese, Spielberg, whose parents were divorced, noted that making this movie “was the first time, I think, on any film that I directed that I pretty much confronted head-on the events and repercussions of divorce.” He even gave the film’s slightly fictionalized version of Abagnale elements of his own life story, the most prominent of which is his mother leaving his father to marry a family friend. Abagnale is obviously not a pure stand-in for this film’s director (he is a real person after all), but the personal connection Spielberg feels with him helps lend the film a warmer edge which another filmmaker might have failed to bring to it. His shuffling between empathy for Frank and acknowledgement of his crimes, all the while moving him to a type of happy ending, is a trick worthy of his real-life subject.
Despite its reputation as simply entertainment, this film continues to maintain a band of followers who adore it for being more than what you’d expect. Michael Waldron cited it as an influence on Loki, and Guillermo Del Toro devoted a Twitter thread to extolling its technical brilliance. In the end, Catch Me If You Can is a little like a con trick: intricate, fascinating, and all the better for defying what you think it’s going to be.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.