Nothing more than a random string of numbers, right? Or maybe a complicated computer code? Or the conclusion of an irrationally intricate mathematical calculation? Frank Abagnale Jr. knows it's not. It’s the routing and account numbers at the bottom of a check. And he should know. During the 1960s he forged and altered such numbers to the tune of nearly $4 million in five years—much to the chagrin and ulcer-inducing anxiety of FBI Agent Carl Hanratty. Agent Hanratty might be one of the best bank fraud men in the Bureau, but he’s never met a suspect like this. Frank not only forges checks, he forges lives. He’s been a substitute teacher. An airline pilot. A doctor. A lawyer. Even a Secret Service agent. And he's not even old enough to buy liquor. Faced with the overwhelmingly dismal prospect of his parents' divorce, Frank ran away from home at the age of 16. Determined to repair his fractured family by making enough money to lure his wayward mother back, he begins impersonating people who make a lot of dough, then forges payroll checks from the companies at which he finds himself "employed." The chase is on. Frank pursues elusive emotional wholeness with fortune, fame and girls galore, while Hanratty doggedly follows Frank.
positive elements: The matter of broken families and their restoration is at the heart of this Steven Spielberg film. Catch Me If You Can repeatedly portrays familial disintegration as grim and emotionally crippling. Many characters are estranged from their relatives. Hanratty is a divorced father. Brenda (a nurse Frank falls in love with) has been disowned by her parents for having an abortion. Frank runs away when his tax-dodging father and adulterous mother split. Desperately wanting to repair his damaged home, Frank decides he'll use anything to make things better—even ill-gained wealth. After many failed attempts, Frank tries to find a way out of his compulsive behavior by pleading with his father to command him to stop stealing. (His dad refuses, thinking his son's escapades are glamorous and exciting.) Meanwhile, it’s implied that Hanratty is an incorrigible curmudgeon and workaholic because of his divorce. Brenda bursts into violent sobs when talking about the anger her parents direct toward her.
Although Frank’s criminal exploits are often humorous, daring and inventive, his lifestyle is ultimately shown to be lonely and unfulfilling. Frank calls Hanratty every Christmas because he has no one else to talk with. His criminality destroys his romance with Brenda, his peace of mind and his health. When Hanratty calls the con game "living the lie" and tells Frank repeatedly that "the house always wins," meaning he'll eventually have to pay for his sins. Also, early interactions between Frank and his dad imply that Frank’s scheming found its genesis in his father’s poor example.
Many other positive themes and deeds appear. Frank’s mom offers to repay the debt her son has racked up. Frank comforts a woman who’s been rudely rebuffed by her employer. He yearns to quit his life of crime, even going so far as to tell Hanratty where he can be found. (The agent mistakenly thinks he’s lying.) Despite kicking Brenda out of the house for her failings, her parents are shown to have a loving marriage (and that love spills over toward Brenda when she arrives at their house on Frank's arm). [Spoiler Warning] Hanratty relentlessly pursues justice for Frank, but doesn’t allow him to die when he’s imprisoned in a foreign country. Frank displays deep love for both of his parents and is heartbroken by his father’s untimely death.
spiritual content: Frank lies about being a Lutheran in order to impress the parents of the girl he wants to marry. When asked to pray before dinner, he instead recounts an inspirational story his father told about a mouse escaping from a bucket of cream by churning it into butter. At one point Frank presses a fake check in a Gideon’s Bible. Frank’s mother works part-time at a church. Christmas carols waft from a church.
sexual content: Frank beds multiple partners, including a "high-class" prostitute. Some scenes involve a kiss and a fade, but others are more explicit. The worst involves a fling with a stewardess during which audiences see a shaking food chart and hear orgasmic moans before the camera pans over to the couple (no explicit nudity is shown). Frank and a girl kiss each other in bed while wearing underwear. A nurse passionately climbs on top of Frank in his office at the hospital, but they’re interrupted by the intercom calling him to the emergency room. It’s implied that Frank sleeps with his fiancée. His mother has an affair and gives Frank money so that he won’t tell his father. An FBI agent recounts an assignment which required him to cross-dress. A number of women wear bikinis.
violent content: Hanratty and other agents burst into various buildings and rooms with guns drawn. At the hospital, the camera lingers on bloody sheets, a gory mutilated leg and Frank’s nauseated reaction (he flees the room to retch). [Spoiler Warning] A crowd of French police officers pull guns on Frank to arrest him. In order to keep him from escaping jail, a guard places a gun to the back of his head.
crude or profane language: The f-word is used as a startling punch line in a "knock-knock" joke (in a later scene a character begins the joke a second time, but the camera cuts away before its conclusion). There are also two uses of the s- word (one of which is muffled), and more than 10 milder profanities. God and Jesus’ names are misused over a dozen times ("God" is combined with "d--n" seven times).
drug and alcohol content: Rare is the scene in which someone isn’t taking a sip of alcohol or puffing on a cigarette. But the messages communicated about tobacco aren't all negative. Frank’s mother smokes regularly, and just as regularly, Frank chastises her for doing so. Young people get drunk at a party in Georgia. Frank’s dad hangs out at bars (one shot shows a lush passed out). Background music mentions drinking booze in a bar in Bombay.
other negative elements: While the Catch Me creators cast a negative light on Frank’s misdeeds, some viewers might still idealize his bilking of "the system," honing in on Frank’s creative crimes rather than the need for healthy families and the concept that justice will prevail. Those inclined to romanticize his wrongdoing should heed the real Abagnale’s comments on his life: "I consider my past immoral, unethical and illegal. It is something I am not proud of. I am proud that I have been able to turn my life around and in the past 25 years [I have] helped my government ... deal with the problems of white collar crime and fraud."
conclusion: Catch Me If You Can is a stunning bit of cinema. DiCaprio pulls off the bold, yet conflicted Abagnale with style, while Hanks disappears into the northeastern twang of the nerdy, bookish Hanratty. Even better, it's not too arty for its own good. Spielberg’s understated and nuanced style holds moviegoers’ attention from titles to credits.
But just like 2001’s Oscar favorite A Beautiful Mind, Catch Me If You Can struggles with its biopic leanings. News outlets such as The Los Angeles Times and USA Today have pointed out a number of factual inaccuracies in the film and viewers may end up confused as to where the real Frank Abagnale ends and Spielberg’s fictional creation begins. Did Frank really pose as a Pan Am pilot and fly millions of miles for free? Yes. Did he pretend to be a substitute teacher while in high school? No. Did his crimes eventually catch up with him? Yes. Was his pursuer, Frank Hanratty, a real person? No. Was his parents’ divorce the main reason he embarked on his adolescent crime spree? Well, maybe. To make things even more complicated, Abagnale now admits that much of his 1980 book Catch Me If You Can (on which the movie is based) was "embellished" and "exaggerated" and "overdramatized" by co-author Stan Redding.
Those are the facts, as they’re known right now. But I found myself caring less and less about historical minutia as the movie progressed. Spielberg’s alterations to a little-known con man’s biography simply don’t carry the same weight as Oliver Stone’s massive revisions of public figures such as JFK and Nixon. Catch Me If You Can is enjoyable for its excellent performances, fun cat-and-mouse chase, quirky humor and superb messages about crime and divorce, not its historical accuracy.
Unfortunately, the film isn’t completely likeable. It zings audiences with occasional vulgarity, abuses of God’s name and casual sexual escapades. That's enough to make families—especially those with younger children—consider their options before racing to catch this critically acclaimed flick.