Director: Stephen Spielberg, 2002. (PG-13)
Set in the 1960s, Catch Me if You Can is one part elaborate cat-and-mouse chase, one part social satire, and one part breezy fun. Based on the real-life story of Frank Abignale Jr, an audacious con-man who impersonated an airline pilot, a doctor and an attorney general before he turned 20, Spielberg has crafted a light film that downplays the moral issues while focusing on the two main characters: Abignale Jr. and Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks).
Frank is a student in a preppy high school, living in a posh house with his parents. But his dad, Frank (Christopher Walken), is being investigated for tax evasion and has to sell and move. When Frank starts at a new public school wearing his uniform from his previous school, he appears to be a teacher. And he discovers his gift: he can convince people. He is a budding con-man. This opening scene where he becomes the substitute French teacher is funny and becomes one of the keys to his future career path.
A little later, he discovers his mother is having an affair and soon his parents divorce. A lawyer tells him to choose which one he will live with, and instead he runs away to New York City where he tries to live by cashing fraudulent checks. The second key to his behavior is this: he wants his family to be reunited, and he wants his father to rise above his troubles and reclaim his former glory.
In fact, Frank Sr tells a parable to the rotary club that was honoring him that further establishes Frank Jr.’s motives:
“Two little mice fell in a bucket of cream. The first mouse quickly gave up and drowned. The second mouse, wouldn't quit. He struggled so hard that eventually he churned that cream into butter and crawled out. Gentlemen, as of this moment, I am that second mouse.”He never gave up, he kept struggling to make it out. This parable is recited twice more in the movie, and underscores Frank Jr.’s desire to never give up on trying to bring his parents back together.
In New York, Frank Jr. discovers that Pan Am pilots are treated like celebrities. They are stars afforded luxuries mere mortals cannot imagine. So, he gets himself a uniform and voila he is a pilot! From there, be begins a life of cashing checks worth millions.
These checks get the attention of Hanratty, a dour New England FBI agent who loves and lives his job. As he pursues the con man, their paths cross in a motel room where Hanratty has Frank literally at the end of his gun barrel. But Frank confidently pulls another con and calmy walks out a free man. This first interchange seals the relationship and ensures that Hanratty will make it his commitment to arrest Frank.
Frank moves on from pilot to physician. He takes on the persona of a doctor, learning his bedside manner from the TV show Marcus Welby MD. After he falls for a young nurse (Amy Adams, ), and meets her family, he decides to be a lawyer like her father (Martin Sheen, The Way). Here he studies Perry Mason on TV to learn courtroom mannerisms. He is a quick self-study.
Speilberg succeeds in wanting us to root for an amoral criminal, even as he cheats and deceives his way across America. Yet even while we cheer on the antihero Frank, he also has us understanding and sympathizing with Hanratty, knowing that in the end he will get his man. It’s a fine balance that Spielberg accomplishes with his deft directing.
One of the ethical themes emerges when Hanratty asks Frank how he gets away with it. “People only know what you tell them, Carl,” Frank tells him. He points out that the reason the Yankies win is because of the stripes in their uniforms. People are distracted by them. They see what they want to see. The point is that people generally take things at face value. If they see a man in a pilot’s uniform with the right kind of badge approaching the cockpit, they assume he is a pilot. If they are in the hospital and a man in a white coat with a badge and a stethoscope steps forward, it is a given that he is a doctor.
Some might call this human gullibility. Others might name it naivety. It is our natural tendency to believe what we are told. We usually want to believe what people say. If this were not so, others would not believe us, and we would have to justify everything we said with evidence. We simply cannot do this in normal living.
On the other hand, though, our enemy the devil knows this and puts it to his advantage. Jesus called him, “a liar and the father of lies” (Jn. 8:44). Indeed, the apostle Paul said, “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14). He was the first “con-man” deceiving by pretending to be what he was not. He did this at the beginning as the serpent in the garden, lying to Eve (Gen. 3), and he continues to do this today, to you and me.
Sometimes we even lie to ourselves. Hanratty points this out, at the end of the film, when he is confronted by Frank: “sometimes it’s easier living the lie.” Even Frank seems to be lying to himself, refusing to believe what his father tells him, and living with the impossible dream that his parents can reconcile. We want to believe, but we cannot face the truth. So we believe our own lies, living with them so long that they become the truth to us.
The antidote to this self-lying is to face the truth. The antidote to wanting to believe what people say is to check the claims. Doctor Luke, the writer of Acts, holds up the Berean Jews that he encountered on his missionary journeys as examples of this. “Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” (Ac. 17:11)
We cannot afford to be distracted. We cannot simply believe everything we see or hear. We need to be cautious in giving out our trust. But we need to avoid giving way to cynicism, which will slowly choke out faith and life. It’s a fine balance. But when we find it, then let’s be like that second mouse and not give up.
Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs