Titan of the blockbuster and cinema’s own beloved historian, Steven Spielberg’s career is as mythic as any you will find. We owe much of what we hold dear about modern movie going to that man and his unrivaled vision for spectacle, character, and escape. Simply put, Mr. Spielberg knows how to entertain and he knows how to tell a story.
Better yet, his keen understanding of heritage and universal emotion — more importantly, how they intersect — are the driving forces to each of his distinct cinematic styles. Think about it, there aren’t many other American storytellers that can boast careers matching Spielberg’s. Let alone one as varied.
His blockbuster work in and of itself is enough to make any filmmaker jealous.
Back to the Future…
I mean forget about it.
Even still, it is his commitment to history; to visceral truth telling that perhaps cements his legacy as a true one-of-one.
Saving Private Ryan…
Band of Brothers…
I could go on and on. But we get the picture.
Steven Spielberg is a champion of American movie making, not to mention a passionate advocate for recognizing cinema’s capacity to celebrate, commemorate, and challenge. The man is a maestro.
Maybe that is what makes his career so fascinating. After all, you don’t carve out a five decade career of directing and producing major motion pictures without facing a few misses (Hello, 1941!) or see a few fall through the cracks (The Adventures of Tintin, anyone?).
Although it’s when we’re face-to-face with Spielberg’s should-have been landmark work, Catch Me If You Can, we finally understand what it means to have so much success that sometimes it diminishes our appreciation. Because as far as this reviewer is concerned, the 2002 title starring the trio of all trios, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, and Christopher Walken, is a sharp, impeccable triumph. If it were made by arguably anyone else it would stand head-and-shoulders above the rest; leaving a legacy of that filmmaker’s finest work. We’d celebrate it as such and remember it as perhaps a timeless moment of big movie star energy bringing a wild true story to life in a massively entertaining fashion.
Now, all those things are true, of course. One may argue even to a larger degree since we are in the hands of Spielberg after all.
But as far as Catch Me If You Can is concerned, because of Spielberg’s massive, well, everything-ness, we somehow live in a world where we may deeply appreciate the gift that this movie is while somehow taking it for granted at the same time. And for many fans, this title may find itself setting near the middle rung of Mr. Spielberg’s dossier. Which, again, feels so wild to say.
Yet, here we are.
The beauty of cinema is, however, that we can always go back. We can always re-visit that which we’ve lived with for some time and see if we gave it a fair shot. Of course, we can re-enjoy that which we rightfully savored the first time out too.
Catch Me If You Can is a cat-and-mouse game played out to Hollywood’s prestige max. DiCaprio is the formidable Frank William Abagnale, Jr. the ultimate American con man that evaded the system and made millions as a teenager pretending to be a pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer. Because, well, why the hell not? Toss in some vintage Tom Hanks charm and just the right amount of Walken sleaze, and we’ve got ourselves one certifiably fantastic caper.
Here we are nearly 20 years later and it feels as relevant as ever to ask what may feel to be an obvious question given this films pedigree, talent, and, yes, legacy:
Is Catch Me If You Can Steven Spielberg’s finest title post-2000?
As a collection of talent, it stands as one of the Maestro’s finest displays.
As a biopic, it subverts the genre to a genius degree while still paying homage to a bygone, but beloved era.
As a legacy maker, again I say it has every reason to be considered a landmark.
Here’s what I mean . . .
Spielberg’s ability to feature the right person is second-to-none. What separates him from the pack is his uncanny ability to fashion impeccable performances from talented icons who seem to be hitting the roles at just the right time. Because when you’re after layered richness to the degree of Spielberg, timing is everything.
Perhaps no better case and point may be found than with Leonardo DiCaprio’s turn as Frank Abagnale, Jr.
I don’t think anyone would be surprised to see Leo giving a great performance in a Spielberg talkie. The man’s a modern legend. Yet, I can’t help but wonder if even just 18 months earlier or later, either way, that somehow the character wouldn’t have quite landed. Sure, Abagnale’s story is fascinating (and a true one to boot). But what makes this movie tick, beyond the impeccable pacing, is Leo. Here he sets at the intersection of: Established movie star and lovable young man. The bold, glitzy energy radiates from the screen in that fashion we’ve grown to know from Mr. DiCaprio. But he never sacrifices that genuine pull of budding youngster. He’s so damn likable but still a chameleon without settling for lazy, showy acting. Spielberg found that camera loving face and raw yet tender energy at the exact right moment.
As for Tom Hanks, well, in keeping it on brand, the man exudes charisma.
Because who captures the American leading man better than Mr. Hanks? We especially appreciate his heartfelt, but never overdone, commitment to self-awareness here. You get the sense that Hanks knows he’s the heel for 75% of the movie, but he eases into it with such nuanced class it almost feels like a familiar handshake. Hanratty is smart, brilliant even, but he’s not well put together. He’s sharp but not necessarily quick. And, as only Tom Hanks can do, he captures it all while bringing dignity to the “smart but bumbling everyman”.
Even with an icon like Christopher Walken, Spielberg managed to tap into the man’s herculean talent 50 years into a career that is as much a meme as it is a salute to longevity.
Here, as the elusive, untrustworthy, but deeply loving Frank Abagnale Sr., Walken managed to break-free from his “Walken-ness” and deliver perhaps the finest performance of his career. Not simply because he intentionally mutes all that makes him Walken, but rather, he uses his unique energy as a conduit of fractured, three-dimensional emotion with just a touch of earnest paranoia. We yearn to see him as the hero, as Frank, Jr. does, but we cannot help but see him as both mice he so fondly speaks of in that bucket of cream. Sure, he doesn’t give up and drown right away, but he doesn’t make it out either — despite all the struggling. Walken embodies that struggle with every bit of believability as anyone may grasp.
Then, of course, there’s the lineage of titanic ladies adorning the various eras of Frank Jr.’s conquests.
Only a prestige popcorn flick like this one could land the likes of Amy Adams, Ellen Pompeo, Elizabeth Banks, and Jennifer Garner all together; in the same film; throwing high-heat; and stealing each scene of which they own, no matter how short. A finely tuned detail that’s synonymous with the best of Spielberg’s canon. No throwaway characters; each role deserving of well-rounded energy. Truth be told, it speaks to the greater plausibility of the film entirely. To balance the movie-star-monolith of DiCaprio we need bold, vibrant energy willing to meet him at that level.
Part of what makes Spielberg Spielberg is his commitment to not just collecting top-tier talent from top-to-bottom; it’s his ability to curate space for character choices to be made in a fashion that elevates every detail in the frame, every story beat, every moment that needs to be earned. It all lands. And most of them wind up among the career best work for those featured. I mean, just ask Harrison Ford, Leo, Hanks, Richard Dreyfuss, Whoopi Goldberg, and a slew of others how well it turns out. Incredible.
On paper, Catch Me If You Can is a biopic.
- Based on a True story.
- Big name movie stars.
- Infamous director.
- Award buzz.
- Holiday release.
The recipe is there.
But in execution, Catch Me If You Can is, at its heart, a crime caper through and through.
In the same way The Dark Knight serves as a crime flick that just happens to be a comic book movie too, this one finds itself as much a low-key subversive emblem as it is high-level entertainment.
Truth be told, this film may as well be straight out of the 1970’s and could just as easily star Robert Redford and Gene Hackman as our dynamic duo of sorts. That’s the beauty of Catch Me If You Can. It feels reminiscent of a time when cinema was both wildly entertaining and incredibly counter cultural; it feels very much “of a type” but still transcending genre just enough to feel brilliantly distinct; it feels delightfully old hat without ever being derivative; and, naturally, carries that fresh Spielberg panache leaving us feeling as though we’ve somehow seen something deeply familiar yet never before seen at the same time. That is vintage Spielberg. The fact that he’s packaged all of this through the biopic trojan horse is the master touch of all.
Perhaps that’s the main takeaway for us after all these years.
We examine Catch Me If You Can with a critical eye and come away 19 years later realizing that nearly every frame of this cat-and-mouse caper still holds up. Moreover that a 141 minute movie could somehow be this re-watchable without a single moment of summer blockbuster action. That it all feels so tight, so lived-in, and yet still so new; we watch it feel like we’re back at the cinema catching it for the first time again, and we feel it every damn time we toss it back on… or at least this reviewer does. But never, not once, throughout the entire prestige romp do we get the paint-by-numbers biography treatment. Thank god for that, am I right?
LESS BIOPICS AND MORE ENGAGING STORIES THAT SIMPLY HAPPEN TO BE TRUE PLEASE!
Give me a duo of misfit frenemies, a great logline, a cerebral caper, and a caravan of young, engaging talent sifted through the lens of a true American storyteller. I’ll gladly buckle-in for that ride. The fact that it just so happens to be a true story is the cherry on top.
Spielberg gets it, because he didn’t set out to make a biopic. He set out to tell an engaging story of the fractured American dream and said, “What if I have Hanks chase Leo around the world?” And you know what? That’s enough to make a dynamite picture.
So, where does that leave us?
Because if we’re being completely honest, as we assess the works of one Steven Spielberg, we’d have to concede that his last 20 years, as a director, have been a bit up and down. Of course, there are droves of other helmers that would give it all up to have one film as good, as successful as a mid-tier Speilberg title. So this is certainly no slight to our beloved cinematic maestro.
But at least for this reviewer, it does lead one to ask:
Is Catch Me If You Can Spielberg’s best title post-2000?
I’m thinking… maybe. Yes.
It’s certainly got a tight but uniquely stylish flare. Top drawer performances all-around, low-key subversive in a biopic sense, and massively entertaining without sacrificing any of that “Oscar flair” we’ve come to know and love with the best of his work.
So much fun but still rich with nuance. Fresh but familiar.
Stacking up against the likes of Munich, Lincoln, A.I., and others… I think it’s the DiCaprio and Hanks caper that takes home the belt. Right?
Maybe it’s not the flashiest one in the lineup, but it just might be the one that’s held up the best; that still brings that refreshing, tight experience. It’s the one that feels the least like Spielberg but also, when we look closely, it’s very much vintage Spielberg.
Oftentimes, movies are fun and if that’s all a title can maintain, it’s a win. Sometimes, we’re fortunate to stumble across a film that makes a splash; it garners our attention and it hits on a deeper level. Catch Me If You Can is both. And just so we’re clear, it’s really difficult to make a film like that.
Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to relive this one for maybe the twentieth time because, well, it is simply wonderful.