Catch me if you can and the terminal

(Welcome to 21st Century Spielberg, an ongoing column and podcast that examines the challenging, sometimes misunderstood 21st century filmography of one of our greatest living filmmakers, Steven Spielberg. In this edition: Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal.)

“Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” wrote Robert Frost. After the bleak future worlds of A.I. and Minority Report, Steven Spielberg made two seemingly light, breezy films that could very well be cinematic explorations of that Frost quote.

The main characters in Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal are both in search of home. Both in the literal sense, and the abstract sense. If home really is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in, then the main characters of Catch Me and Terminal perhaps have no real home at all. And what a terrifying thought that is.

Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal were Spielberg’s pivots out of darkness. Gone were the oppressive, often hellish futurescapes of A.I. and Minority Report. In place of the darkness came a sunny, funny trip back to the 1960s, followed by a stop-over into present day. On the surface, these two films were light hearted, brisk affairs. Yet even here, beneath the brightly lit retro fashions of Catch Me and the slapstick humor of The Terminal, melancholy still lurks. It was perhaps a confirmation that even when Spielberg tried to go light in the 21st century, darkness still found its way in.

Part 2: Phone Home – Catch Me If You Can and The Terminal

catch me walken

A Dessert of a Movie

“Where are you going tonight, Frank?”

After the darkness of A.I. and Minority Report, Steven Spielberg decided what he needed to make was an “upbeat, dessert of a movie.” Catch Me If You Can, based on the book by real-life con artist Frank Abagnale, had been bouncing around Hollywood since the 1980s. However, no real movement took place on the project until the 2000s. At one point, David Fincher was going to direct. Then Gore Verbinski.

Finally, the film ended up in Spielberg’s lap. It may not have seemed like an outwardly Spielbergian film, especially at that time. The script was low on special effects, and low on spectacle. It was instead a character piece, with a pretty darn good true story – when he was a teenager, Frank Abagnale began conning his way into several professions. Airline pilot. Doctor. Lawyer. Along the way, he added check fraud to his repertoire, and made himself an ill-gotten fortune. The material didn’t scream “Spielberg!”, but it was exactly what Spielberg wanted.

The way Spielberg saw it, Catch Me If You Can was “an opportunity to take a creative vacation.” “I had just finished shooting Minority Report and was in something of a dark place,” the filmmaker said. “I thought this would be a breath of fresh air for me. I enjoy that whiplash sensation of going from a film like Jurassic Park to a Schindler’s List, and now from Minority Report to Catch Me If You Can.”

Yet Catch Me If You Can isn’t Spielberg on autopilot. The filmmaker didn’t use the lighter movie to take it easy. Instead, he crammed multiple locations, wardrobe changes and set pieces all into a wham-bam 52-day shooting schedule, and ended up delivering one of the most enjoyable films of his career.

It’s also a personal film. Perhaps the most personal film Spielberg had made in some time. The filmmaker saw himself in Frank Abagnale, and found ways to stitch his own life experiences onto the character.

There is, of course, the theme of a lost boy searching for his father. Daddy issues were a major part of most Spielberg films, but Catch Me took things a bit further. When Spielberg was 19, his parents divorced. The divorce was hard on the future-filmmaker, and he laid the blame of the split solely at the feet of his father. Later, Spielberg learned that the divorce had actually been his mother’s idea. She had fallen in love with a family friend, and decided to leave Spielberg’s father for this other man. Even after learning this, however, Spielberg still held his father responsible.

Eventually, Spielberg’s wife Kate Capshaw urged him to reconcile with his father. “I think one of the worst things that happened to me was my voluntary fallout with my father,” Spielberg would later say. “And then the greatest thing that happened to me was when I saw the light, and realized I needed to love him in a way that he could love me back.”

This marital strife gets center stage early on in Catch Me If You Can. As far as Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio) is concerned, his parents – smooth-talking Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken), and French immigrant Paula (Nathalie Baye) – are the picture of marital bliss. But Frank’s preconceived notions of his parent’s happy marriage soon come crashing down. One day, Frank comes home from school and finds another man in the house with his mother – a family friend. A family friend for whom Frank’s mother will soon leave Frank’s father.

This plot point was absent from earlier drafts of the script before Spielberg came aboard. With this knowledge in mind, it’s safe to assume it was added to the film at Spielberg’s behest. His way of confronting his parent’s traumatizing divorce. His way of making the film extra personal.

“Some of my films have had to do with broken homes and people on the run from their sad pasts,” Spielberg said. “But except for those touchstones for me, there are those strands that got me to say: you know, there’s something also about me that I can say through the telling of this kind of lighthearted story.”

The impending separation of his parents, and by extension the obliteration of his idea of what “home” is, sends Frank into a life of crime. DiCaprio, an actor who often seems both boyish and mature at the same time, is perfectly cast, able to easily dip in and out of Frank’s schemes to pass himself off as older than he really is.

Spielberg plants the seeds of Frank’s talents early. The young man ends up in a new public school, still wearing the tie and blazer combo from his previous private school. He’s instantly an outcast; a freak; a weirdo. So what does he do? He quickly struts to the front of the class and tells the students he’s their new teacher. And they buy it. Frank has a gift for making people believe whatever bullshit he dishes their way. It’s a talent he’s inherited from his father, another con man. Frank Sr.’s cons are small and petty, but end up becoming big enough that they bankrupt his entire family. Frank is determined to not suffer the same fate. He’s going to be rich, even if he has to steal it.

Wrapped up in all of this is a foolish, childish idea that if Frank can somehow make enough money, he can somehow put his broken family back together again. That he can use his stolen cash to buy back his idea of home.

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