Spielberg was twice denied the chance to direct a James Bond movie (once before Jaws, once after). In fact, the creation of Indiana Jones stemmed from his desire to make a movie with a Bond-like character. Flash ahead to 2002 and Catch Me If You Can and you can see that what Spielberg actually wanted to do was go back in time and direct a Bond movie back in the 1960s.
And it’s pretty hard to watch the scene where Abagnale imitates Sean Connery in Goldfinger and not wish Spielberg had the chance. I’ve always been a huge proponent of taking the Bond franchise and making them period films, and the energy Spielberg gives to the era in this film is a big reason why. Everything is drenched in that wonderfully kitschy sheen I always associate with the early part of the decade in my mind, where everything seemed brighter and more colorful and both futuristic and charmingly retro at the same time. Vietnam hadn’t yet cast its cloud, and if we still feared the Soviets, we were flush with the gee whiz excitement of shooting men into space on rockets, and jet travel hadn’t yet lost its air of exotic wonder. And in a way, Abagnale is a sort of James Bond himself, changing his identity to stay a step ahead of the agents who would bring him in. He just does it without the exploding pens and submarine cars.
Another thing that gives the film its Sixties flavor is an opening credits sequence right out of Saul Bass’ greatest hits. It’s really pretty much the entire film in about three minutes, set to a syncopated bit of jazz from John Williams, and it all combines to pull you into the time period. It’s not hard to imagine the producers of Mad Men getting a look at this and thinking, “You know, that’s not a bad idea.”
Catch Me If You Can came at the end of a pretty heavy run as far as Spielberg goes. After playing with dinosaurs again in 1997’s The Lost World, he hit us with Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, A.I., and Minority Report all in a row, none of which I’d exactly call light, breezy fare. So Catch Me offers him the chance to lighten up and have some fun. Not that there aren’t some darker moments, particularly the strained relationship between Abagnale and his father, but Spielberg doesn’t seem all that interested in them. The driving force in the film is the cat and mouse between Abagnale and Hanratty, and when you have two actors as undeniably charismatic as Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks, it’s a smart move to let their interplay just breathe. Hanratty’s really the one constant adult presence in Abagnale’s life, becoming a better father to him than his real father, and as his pursuit goes on, you can tell Hanratty is just as much invested in helping Abagnale as he is in arresting him.
It’s interesting that we’re given the story of a liar in a format that’s essentially a big lie in itself. Godard may have famously said, “Film is truth 24 times a second,” but he finished the quote with, “and every cut is a lie.” Abignale and Spielberg are both storytellers using their talents to craft stories designed to make their audiences believe what they’re being told is real, ostensibly for monetary gain but deep down for their own gratification. They’re pulling the wool over our eyes because it’s so much damn fun. Enough fun that, even though it’s not about big ideas or big emotions, it’s easily one of my favorite later-period Spielbergs.
Tomorrow: Almost anything goes.