Tom Hanks' Catch Me If You Can Casting Completely Changed The Story

Steven Spielberg after the turn of the 21st Century has a strange reputation. In an era where so many film fans are craving movies with sizable budgets that are made for adults, Spielberg is one of the few directors doing this on a consistent basis. "Munich," "Lincoln," "Bridge of Spies," and "The Post" are all the kinds of movies people claim they want, yet when Spielberg does it, they are sometimes thought of as old hat, old fashioned, or "dad movies." Look, just because he's not dealing with aliens and whip-wielding adventurers as often as he used to does not mean these movies are any less exciting or dazzling as those earlier pictures that people worship with VHS boxes clung to their chests. In fact, I would wager my love of the last 25 years of Spielberg is at the same level as the first 25. And no movie embodies my love for this era of Spielberg more than "Catch Me If You Can."

This con artist film starring Leonardo DiCaprio as real life forger Frank Abagnale Jr. just crackles. Not only is it a rip-roaring good time of a chase movie, but it is also a beautiful, melancholic look about running from your childhood trauma by pretending to be other people. What makes "Catch Me If You Can" special is how it juxtaposes the young whippersnapper Abagnale against a pill of an FBI agent in Carl Hanratty, played by the incredible Tom Hanks. This was an unusual part for Hanks to play. First off, it is odd not to see Hanks' name first billed on a poster, especially in this era where he was in smash hit after smash hit. Secondly, he rarely plays someone this humorless, where you can make a joke about how he can't tell a joke. While not an obvious casting choice, you need someone of a similar caliber of star to DiCaprio to make a credible foe. 

However, in a time where Hanks was being offered every part in Hollywood, he had to do some extra legwork to get "Catch Me If You Can."

'I crashed that movie!'

Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg have made five movies together as an actor and director pair, starting with 1998's "Saving Private Ryan." They feel like collaborators destined to be joined at the hip, even removing their statures in the American cinematic landscape. They're kindred spirits, interested in the same kinds of stories and people, which is why they both produced the television miniseries "Band of Brothers" and "The Pacific." That being said, they'd only done one movie together before "Catch Me If You Can," and Hanks being a Spielberg regular was not yet a foregone conclusion. Also, Carl Hanratty being a supporting character also did not put A-list movie star Tom Hanks at the top of mind for the part. 

In an interview with Empire, Hanks talks about reading the script and feeling compelled to impose himself on the film:

"What happened was I read it and I knew that Leo was gonna be playing Frank Abagnale and when I read it, the character Carl Hanratty the FBI guy [stood out to me]. I called up and said, 'Look, I'm not trying to crash anything and I'm not trying to stick my head in this, but you have a part in here that is the equal to Javert in "Les Misérables." You can't have a movie called "Catch Me If You Can" without somebody who is constantly chasing him. I'd like to play who's constantly chasing him.' So I honed in on that all on my own. So there you have all those various permutations. And Leo gave the okay and Steven let me in. That's how that became the three hander that it was."

This demonstrates a couple of terrific instincts on the part of Tom Hanks. First, it shows a lack of vanity by him not needing to be the star, a problem that plagues so many people of his stature. He sees where a good part is, and he will take it. After all, Javert is a more interesting character in "Les Misérables" than Jean Valjean (just remove Russell Crowe from your mind to make this make sense). Investigating the determination and obsession that consumes a person with a singular goal at the expense of every other element of their life is extremely compelling. It is easier to understand why Valjean does what he does in "Les Mis" because his intentions come from a humane place. Javert is a human Terminator, and when the person he has been chasing shows him mercy and kindness, his brain short circuits to the point where death is the only release. Carl Hanratty isn't that far gone, but his determination to catch Abagnale certainly knows no bounds.

Needing a cat for the mouse

The other thing this shows us about Hanks is that, from the sound of his quote, "Catch Me If You Can" seemed to be less of a cat and mouse game than it ended up being. This was based on Abagnale's own memoir of what happened and was being developed as a star vehicle for DiCaprio. It makes sense that it would be more interested in the con man than the law. The magic of "Catch Me If You Can" lies in that dichotomy between the two men, though. How the two are able to connect by sharing the same sense of loneliness is the key to the film not being just fun fluff. There is not much drama if Hanratty is just some stiff without any interior life. By adding Tom Hanks to the equation, everybody knows that part is now going to be as crucial as DiCaprio's Abagnale, and the film is forever richer for it.

Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg's next collaboration would be "The Terminal," so their instincts aren't always the greatest. But for "Catch Me If You Can," they knew exactly what they had on their hands here and created what I would consider one of the five best films of Spielberg's entire career. Without Tom Hanks, I don't know if the movie finds that proper balance of drama and romp. Luckily, he made his way in, and we were given a masterpiece.

Also, this exchange in "Catch Me If You Can" deserved a Pulitizer:

'Knock, knock.'

'Who's there?'

'Go f*** yourself.'