The Fascinating True (And Not So True) Story Behind Catch Me If You Can

When you hear Steven Spielberg's name, you probably think of "Jurassic Park," "Jaws," or any given "Indiana Jones" movie. And that's fair, but you shouldn't limit yourself to just the classics. Spielberg has a long filmography and among his many iconic titles is the lesser-acknowledged masterpiece, "Catch Me if You Can." So while I have your attention, let's take a journey behind the scenes and dig into the fascinating story behind this film.

What is Catch Me If You Can?

"Catch Me If You Can" is the caper you didn't know you needed in your life. Remember when you were a kid, and you dreamed of living life on the run? Not as a dangerous criminal, but as the cool kind that only stole from the government, owned a bunch of fake IDs and switched between made-up identities with elaborate costume changes. Best of all, it would be a life of adventure, without parental supervision! Well, bad news, it's probably too late for all that. But we can still live vicariously through 2002 Leonardo DiCaprio. 

In "Catch Me If You Can,"  a post-"Titanic" Leo is young and as charming as ever, starring alongside greats like Tom Hanks and Christopher Walken. He plays Frank Abagnale Jr., who cons millions of dollars while posing as a pilot for Pan American Airways. He also pretends to be a doctor in Georgia and a prosecutor in Louisiana. Plus — major detail here — he does it all before his 19th birthday.

The movie is stylish, clever, and fun. It's one of Spielberg's smoothest, breezing right by until it crashes into dark, emotional territory. In typical Spielberg fashion, the movie hides tragedy beneath its facade. We get all the fun of Frank's wild adventure before being stopped in our tracks to confront the pain he's desperate to escape. Along with DiCaprio's brilliant performance is Tom Hanks as FBI Agent Carl Hanratty, trying obsessively to hunt the con-artist down. Walken portrays the tragic figure of Frank Abagnale Sr., a role model for his son throughout his childhood. The movie is full of other stars, including Amy Adams, Martin Sheen, Jennifer Garner, Elizabeth Banks, Nathalie Baye, Ellen Pompeo, and James Brolin.

Is Frank Abagnale Jr. Real?

So here's the big question — is the movie based on a true story? Drumroll please... Yes! Frank Abagnale Jr. was out there in the '60s and '70s, cashing fake checks and posing as a professional in a bunch of different industries. He began conning at 15 and was hunted by the FBI for years.

Tom Hanks' FBI Agent Carl Hanratty is fictional. The character is said to be a combination of a number of FBI agents who worked to catch Abagnale, but the relationship between the two is loosely based on Frank's relationship with real FBI agent, Joseph Shea. According to Abagnale, their friendship lasted 30 years, until Shea's death in 2005.

Special Agent Shea was the head of the FBI investigative team chasing after Frank and had spent several years looking for him. While pursuing Abagnale, Shea initially believed his suspect was in his late twenties to mid thirties, because of how sophisticated the crimes and forgeries were. Like Hanratty in the movie, Shea became Abagnale's most important connection to the FBI: he convinced the agency to use the criminal for undercover work (without pay) to investigate forgeries, frauds, and scam artists. After serving his time, Abagnale became a consultant.

How Much of The Movie Really Happened?

Let's get into the nitty-gritty: DiCaprio's Frank gets up to some pretty wild hijinks, making great plane escapes and pulling off wild scams. Naturally, the impulse is to revisit every scene from the movie, squint really hard at the screen and wonder did that really happen? Well look no further than this article: here are a few quickfire answers.

Did Frank really pass the bar exam? You bet he did! Abagnale forged a Harvard Law School transcript, passed the bar in Louisiana and became a practicing attorney. Much like he says in the movie, it was all a matter of retaking the test. He studied hard, failed the exam twice, did eight more weeks of studying, then passed on his third try.

Did Frank really escape a jetliner by climbing through the plane toilet? Frank wrote about this incident in his 1980 memoir, "Catch Me If You Can: The True Story of a Real Fake." He claims that he removed the toilet and wriggled through the hatch until his feet dangled above the tarmac. But this has become a source of debate with airline experts rebutting that it's impossible to get from a toilet into the rest of a plane.

Did Brenda really exist? The short answer is no. But Brenda, the Amy Adams character, is based on a flight attendant Abagnale apparently dated while on the run. They were never actually engaged, but he did spend time with her family.

Where is Frank Abagnale now? Abagnale runs Abagnale & Associates, an organization that advises companies on fraud and develops anti-fraud measures.

For the most part, it boils down to who you believe. Frank Abagnale himself claims most of these incidents happened and details them in his autobiography. But never forget — the man is a professional con artist. He certainly caused enough chaos to become a wanted man, but many argue that his big claims aren't possible. Just last year, journalist Alan C. Logan wrote a book debunking some of Abagnale's story, calling his persona "the greatest hoax on Earth." He claims that Abagnale spent most of his time quietly on the run or in prison, with his famous scams being exaggerations or entirely fabricated. This sounds a lot less fun than the movie, but might actually be closer to the truth.

Logan interviewed people who knew Abagnale, pulled public records and used newspaper clippings to find the real story. A flight attendant Abagnale knew in 1969 (the basis of Brenda's character) claims their relationship was heavily exaggerated. According to her, they met while Abagnale was posing as a pilot and he followed her all over the Easter Seaboard. After essentially stalking her, he stayed with her family, wined and dined her parents to earn their trust and all the while stole checks from them and local businesses in the area. Eventually, he was caught by the FBI and arrested. So as it turns out, "Catch Me If You Can" might be Abagnale's greatest con yet.