The main problem with Steven Spielberg in the 2000's is that he lost the ability to edit himself. You can see him talk about this problem early in his career with films like Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark, where other people had to come in and make cuts to the film that were harsh. This upset him because he worked so hard to get all of those shots. But he allowed it, because he was able to see past his ego and admit that sometimes less is more.
But something happened in his later career where he either had too much cache or did not trust his editors enough. Instead, his movies became too long. The entire opening with the TV show is useless, as is the the scene with the prostitute. And there are some storylines that can be completely lifted out, like the subplot about how his girlfriend is on the outs with her family because she had an abortion, and you wouldn't miss a thing.
Once, as a film exercise, I re-edited Catch Me If You Can. If you take about 45 minutes out of the movie, it is nearly perfect.
The story works because part of us wants to be Frank Abagnale Jr., played by Leonardo DiCaprio. He is smart, charming, and successful at his deceptions. We want to believe that we could, by the power of our own personality, get whatever we want. But the film also works because you have Carl Hanrady (Tom Hanks) constantly working as a combination of Javert and Jimminy Cricket reminding Frank and the audience that what he's doing is wrong.
That isn't to say that the movie is super serious the entire time. In fact, Catch Me If You Can is both fun and fascinating. Even though DiCaprio leans in to his movie star good looks, you can't help but imagine yourself in his shoes. And while you're doing that, he's doing the same: imagining himself to be something more, as in that amazing shot of him watching Goldfinger. You can see in that moment the reverence Spielberg has for movie theaters as this gargantuan spaces where larger than life characters make deep impressions on us.
The fascination comes at trying to figure out Frank's next scheme. I love how this is often done visually, without Frank having to narrate the process, thus making it more cinematic. I love how he soaks the model airplane to get the TWA sticker off of it to use on the check. Then when that works, Spielberg does that wonderful reveal of the tub filled with model airplanes. You can't help but smile and chuckle at his ingenuity.
That isn't to say that the dialogue is not as good. In fact, even the exposition is interesting. When Carl explains check fraud with his slide show, I was utterly pulled in.
Another thing that Spielberg does incredibly well is that he draws you in to the era in which he is filming. It is fairly common to make a period piece. But when Spielberg does one, it is utterly transportive. It isn't simply about the cars or costumes or props. There is a feel to this era that makes you feel as though you've left your own time. What Spielberg does in this movie is something that most film-makers miss. To really do period piece well if it is from recent decades, you don't try to re-create it as it actually was. You try to re-create it as it is remembered. Spielberg grew up in this era and most of the movie has very soft lighting and a colorful brightness that is reflective of the nostalgia in his mind. While things might not have been as bright in reality, those that remember that time will have their memories similarly colored. And for those like me who weren't born yet, this take still feels familiar because my own memories of childhood are similarly colored.
And still the movie has its share of intensity and thrills. As Carl gets closer you want Frank to get away. Their final confrontation in France is incredibly intense with the slow rhythmic beating getting imperceptibly louder and louder until it is deafening. The dialogue works because you can't tell if Frank is projecting his own dishonesty on Carl or if Carl has truly adapted to Frank's ways. Watch as Spielberg creates unease with his dutch angels and claustrophobic framing, even in the wide shots. Most movies you can tell what the outcome will be, but you are completely in Frank's position and have no idea what's waiting for you on the other side of the door.
Thematically, Spielberg is dealing with broken homes. Like Frank, Spielberg's parents got divorced and it had huge impact on him. Both he and Frank threw themselves into creative endeavor, though Spielberg's was not illegal. But no matter how much success either had, there was an emptiness that was never fully healed. Sometimes Spielberg hits these moments like a sledgehammer over the audience. But others are more subtle. When the FBI comes to see Frank's mom and asks for a picture of him, she says that she has his yearbook somewhere. It took me a few times to watch the movie to realize something: she doesn't have Frank's picture displayed in her house. She has moved beyond her son and wiped away most traces of him from her life. This culminates in the moment Frank peaks through his mom's window on Christmas Eve and Spielberg does that heartbreaking reveal that completely destroys Frank. Ultimately, all Frank wanted was to have his family back together. When he realizes that this dream is dead, there is tragedy, but he can now begin to heal. As a child of divorce myself, this resonates in ways difficult to describe.
I cannot end this post without special mention of the performances. DiCaprio is an actor who has kept getting better and better. He plays both the wide-eyed innocent and the steely-eyed con man perfectly. He is a master criminal and naive child at the same time. Hanks is fantastic, letting himself play the bumbling straight man at times, but keeping a sense of overall constancy and competence. He is like the way teenagers view their parents: alternately embarrassing but also dependable. Christopher Walken does some of his best acting in years here. Look at the brave face he puts to his son, but the look of utter desperation he has when asking for a loan. I love the way the subtly costume him to show his move from entrepreneur to mail carrier without bring too much attention to it. Amy Adams is fantastic in her role. You immediately understand why Frank wants to be her hero, but when she gets caught up in his lies, you can see how she is too overwhelmed.
Again, there is a perfect movie in Catch Me If You Can if you can wade past all of the fat that Spielberg failed to trim. Thankfully with home video, you can do your own trimming and enjoy the great parts that are there.