My first encounter with the life of Frank W. Abagnale, Jr. was accidental. I was about 5 or 6, poking around the house, when I came across a book cover that instantly imprinted on me:
I didn’t read it then, because I couldn’t read a 50 page book before my short little attention span made me want to “look at” ants through a magnifying glass or something similarly fun. And I never ended up reading it at any time in the next three decades. It’s probably still sitting in my parents’ bookshelf, and as a kid I would have read it ten times over if I had just read a different page every time I picked it up instead of just looking at the creepy faceless man on the cover over and over again. But really, the cover was enough for me to draw my own conclusions about how this “amazing true story” turned out. And it was not until this week that I learned how wrong I was all these years.
My biggest mistake was thinking that this story centred around the fact that this guy actually had no face and that’s why he needed the pilot mask. Symbolism was lost on me then (and probably still is to this day). It turns out that this guy had a normal face, wrote a lot of bad cheques, and for some reason the key to his scheme was pretending to be a pilot.
I found that part of the story absolutely amazing. Most of all because I feel like it’s probably true. Pilots in the 1960s were gods among men. They were the paragon of success and reliability. So much so that a pilot’s uniform changed Frank Jr.’s cheque scams from fruitless endeavours to an avalanche of other peoples’ money. Can you imagine this happening today? It seems as likely as an apparently successful model taking a cheque in exchange for turning tricks. Which, as I learned, also happened in this true story.
Incidentally, that successful model was played by Jennifer Garner. Catch Me If You Can is full of soon-to-be-stars making cameos, including Amy Adams, Elizabeth Banks and Ellen Pompeo. Add Christopher Walken, Tom Hanks, Martin Sheen, and Leonardo DiCaprio, and you’ve got a pretty impressive cast. And the director, Steven Spielberg, is no slouch either.
Maybe all these young faces are the reason that watching Catch Me If You Can felt doubly nostalgic. As only a movie set in the good old days can, the movie puts a bright sunny face on $2.5 million worth of cheque fraud, where if you go big enough then inevitably the FBI will negotiate your release from prison so they can offer you a job. And those good old days now seem to be either the 1960s, when this movie is set, or the early 2000s, pre-financial crisis, when this movie was made.
Catch Me If You Can is an entertaining movie that remains enjoyable mainly because it fully embraces its ludicrous premise. If it took itself more seriously, it may still have worked in those good old days but by now probably would have lost its luster, as I think we are now too jaded to be charmed by ultra-rich assholes who think the rules don’t apply to them (with Donald Trump being an obvious and unfortunate exception).
But Spielberg and DiCaprio didn’t ask me to like Abagnale. Instead, they gave me a kid who figured out how to do one thing really well but who was terrible at every other aspect of life, a guy I almost felt sorry for, and that was a brilliant choice. Add Tom Hanks as an opponent/father figure who by the end of the movie sees right through Abagnale, and you get a movie I should have watched long before now, especially when it has been sitting on our DVD shelf since Jay and I moved in together. Things might have been different if the DVD cover had a man with no face – because then I would undoubtedly have picked it up long ago. That was Dreamworks’ one misstep.
Catch Me If You Can gets a score of nine giddy stewardesses out of ten.