Steven Spielberg has made a lot of great movies. He invented the summer blockbuster. He crafted one of the defining films about World War II. He introduced the world to no less than three stone-cold classic iconic characters before the age of 40. There’s a reason he’s called a master filmmaker, and his ability to tell a story with a camera is in many ways still unparalleled. With so many classics under his belt, we’ve come to categorize an entire group of Spielberg films as “Minor Spielberg”—movies that don’t reach the heights of, say, Jaws, but are still better than 90% of what else is out there. But one “Minor Spielberg” film in particular has been somewhat underrated, although definitely not forgotten. His 2002 effort Catch Me If You Can is a flighty, sexy, incredibly fun caper, but it’s also one of Spielberg’s most complex—and personal—chronicles of a father-son relationship in his entire career.
Based on a true story, Catch Me If You Can follows the exploits of Frank Abagnale, Jr., who posed as a pilot, doctor, and lawyer and racked up millions of dollars in counterfeit checks all before his 19th birthday. For the lead role, Spielberg brilliantly turned to the boyish Leonardo DiCaprio, who imbues Abagnale with a youthful immaturity despite his big cons, while also successfully selling the character as someone capable of pulling off such incredible feats.
The film begins by introducing Frank’s home life, in which he comes to discover that his mother (Nathalie Baye) has been cheating on his father. When faced with their impending divorce and the fact that he must choose who he wants to live with, Frank runs away, thus beginning his conman adventures. The fracturing of his nuclear family, or the façade of such, is what spurs Frank to fulfill his wildest dreams.
What ensues is one of the most entertaining films of Spielberg’s career. This movie breezes by, using the jet-set era as a backdrop for Frank’s exploits that run from fondue parties to a liaison with a hooker in which, through Frank’s need to use forge checks, she ends up paying him.
Working with longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg once again shows his prodigy-like ability to stage shots that are not just gorgeous, but help advance the character development or theme through metaphor or motivated movements. In fact, some of the duo’s finest work is in this film, specifically the Christmas phone calls between Frank and FBI Agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) that underline the loneliness of both characters. And John Williams’ jazz-infused score is absolutely some of the best work of his entire career, running the gamut from jovial delight to emotional heartache, sometimes balancing both in the course of a single scene.
Throughout the film, Frank frequently meets up with his father (Christopher Walken), who’s in trouble with the IRS. Frank works to get his mother and father back together, buying his dad a brand-new Cadillac and suggesting he drive by the house and see his mother, show her how well he’s doing, and make the family whole again. Of course, this can’t work. That’s not how relationships go, and despite his actions Frank is still a teenager at heart, yearning to put his family back together and return to the blissful ignorance of his childhood.
And in that regard, Catch Me If You Can is one of Spielberg’s most personal films. Throughout his career the “absent father” has been a staple, from Close Encounters to E.T. to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Heck, even Hook is all about daddy issues. Spielberg’s father was a workaholic, while he described his mother as “Peter Pan”, refusing to grow up and always playful. But when the filmmaker was 19, his parents divorced. His father left, seemingly abandoning the family, and it hit Spielberg hard.
That’s reflected in his work and the motif of the absent father who spurns the mother, leaving her to care for the kids. But Spielberg didn’t know the whole truth about his parents’ split. In the mid 1990s, he rekindled his relationship with his father and finally learned what happened: His father didn’t leave, his mother found someone else. She fell in love with one of his father’s best friends, but his father didn’t want the children to be mad at her, so he took the blame and left.
It’s a fascinating story. Much of Spielberg’s work is so impactful because of the absent father motif, and how personal his films were, which did speak to so many people who went through similar traumas. And Spielberg’s trauma was genuine—he felt abandoned by his dad, and he said his mother was never really the same after the split. But after Spielberg learned the truth of his parents’ divorce, that reality was reflected in his work—most explicitly in Catch Me If You Can.
Just as in Spielberg’s real life, Catch Me If You Can finds the mother falling in love with the father’s best friend, and remarrying. It’s not exactly a 1:1—in the film, Frank is totally aware of his mother’s infidelity—but its effect on Frank feels personal, as if Spielberg is trying to reach back in time and fix things. Frank is spurred to make a name for himself after his parents’ divorce, and he’s convinced if he makes enough money, if he does enough things, he can put the family back together. That’s what’s driving him. Not greed or lust or the need to act out. He just wants his family back.