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Catch Me If You Can

Catch Me if You Can is a 2002 black comedy film loosely based on Frank Abagnale Jr.'s autobiography. Steven Spielberg directed the film, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Abagnale, as well as Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Amy Adams, Martin Sheen and Nathalie Baye. Catch Me If You Can tells the story of Frank Abagnale Jr. who, before his 19th birthday, successfully conned millions of dollars' worth of checks as a Pan American World Airways pilot, Georgia doctor and Louisiana prosecutor.

Development for the film started as far back as 1980. With the beginning of the 21st century, filmmakers such as David Fincher, Gore Verbinski, Lasse Hallström, Miloš Forman and Cameron Crowe were at one point involved with Catch Me if You Can. Spielberg (who was originally involved as producer) decided to become the project's director, dropping out of Big Fish and Memoirs of a Geisha. Filming took place from February to May 2002. Catch Me If You Can received financial and critical success, and the real Abagnale greeted the film positively. A Broadway musical adaptation, (with the same title as the film) is in development.


Frank Abagnale Jr (Leonardo DiCaprio), 15 years old, lives happily in 1963 New Rochelle, New York with his father Frank Abagnale Sr (Christopher Walken), and French mother Paula (Nathalie Baye). When a loan for Frank Sr. is denied at Chase Manhattan Bank, due to a series of IRS tax frauds by Frank Sr, the family is forced to move from their grand home to a small apartment. Paula carries an affair with Jack (James Brolin), a friend of her husband. In the meantime, Frank poses as a substitute teacher in his French class. Frank's parents file for divorce, and Frank runs away. When he runs out of money, he begins to use confidence scams. Frank's cons grow ever bolder and he even impersonates an airline pilot. He forges Pan Am payroll checks and succeeds in stealing more than $2.8 million.

Meanwhile Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), an FBI bank fraud agent, begins to track down Frank with little help from his superiors. Carl and Frank meet in a hotel, where Frank convinces Carl his name is Barry Allen of the Secret Service. Frank leaves, with Carl angrily fooled. Later, at Christmas, Carl is still working when Frank calls him, attempting to apologize for duping Carl. Carl rejects his apology and tells him that he will soon be caught, but laughs when he realizes that Frank actually called him because he has no one else to talk to. Frank hangs up, and Carl continues to investigate, suddenly realizing that the name "Barry Allen" is from The Flash comic books and that Frank is just a teenager.

Frank, meanwhile, has not only changed to becoming a doctor and being a Louisiana lawyer, but has fallen in love with a girl named Brenda (Amy Adams) who he eventually admits the truth about himself to and asks her to run away with him. Carl tracks him to his engangment party where Frank has left Brenda, asking her to meet him in two days so they can elope. Frank sees her waiting as agreed, but suddenly Frank spots FBI agents everywhere and realizes that he has been set up and escapes on a flight to Europe. Six months later, Carl shows his boss that Frank has been forging checks all over the world and that he’s out of control, and he wants permission to go to Europe to look for him. When his boss denies him the permission, Carl brings Frank’s checks to professionals who deem that the check was printed in France. Remembering from an interview with Paula, Frank’s mother, that she was born in Montrichard, France, Carl goes there where he finds Frank, and tells him that the French police will kill him if he doesn’t go with Carl quietly. Frank assumes he is joking at first, but Carl promises Frank he would never lie to him, and Carl takes him outside, where the French police escort him to prison. Carl promises to have him extradited to the U.S.

The scene then flashes forward to a plane returning Frank to the U.S. from France, where Carl informs him that his father has died. Consumed with grief, Frank escapes when the plane lands in New York and goes back to his old house, where he finds his mother and Jack Barnes, as well as a girl that Frank realizes is his half-sister. Frank gives up and is sentenced to prison, getting visits from time to time from Carl. When Frank easily points out how one of the checks Carl is carrying as evidence is fake, Carl gets an idea and calls for an interview with the FBI. At the interview, the FBI informs Frank that he can live out the remainder of his sentence working in the FBI's bank fraud department, under Carl’s custody, to which Frank accepts. Frank finally reveals to Carl that not all of his careers were cons -- Frank passed the Louisiana Bar exam by studying for it. Epilogue: Frank is happily married with three sons, lives in the Midwest and is still good friends with Carl. Frank has helped catch some of the world's most elusive money forgers and earns millions creating unforgeable checks.


Ellen Pompeo and Elizabeth Banks have small roles. Brian Howe, Frank John Hughes and Chris Ellis portray FBI agents. Jennifer Garner cameos as a call girl. The real Frank Abagnale cameos as a French police officer arresting his character.


Frank Abagnale sold the film rights to his autobiography in 1980. Producer Michel Shane purchased the film rights in 1990, for Paramount Pictures. By December 1997, Barry Kemp purchased the film rights from Shane, bringing the project to DreamWorks, with Jeff Nathanson writing the script. By April 2000, David Fincher was attached to direct over the course of a few months, but dropped out in favor of Panic Room. In July 2000, Leonardo DiCaprio had entered discussions to star, with Gore Verbinski to direct. Steven Spielberg signed on as producer, and filming was set to begin in March 2001.

Verbinski cast James Gandolfini as Carl Hanratty, Ed Harris as Frank Abagnale Sr. and Chloe Sevigny as Brenda Strong. Verbinski dropped out because of DiCaprio's commitment on Gangs of New York. Lasse Hallström was in negotiations to direct by May 2001, but dropped out in July 2001. At this stage Harris and Sevigny left the film, but Gandolfini was still attached. Spielberg, co-founder of DreamWorks, offered the job of director to Miloš Forman, and considered hiring Cameron Crowe. This only prompted Spielberg to consider directing the film himself, dropping out of projects such as Big Fish and Memoirs of a Geisha. Spielberg officially committed to directing in August 2001.

The original start date was January 2002, but was pushed to February 7 in Los Angeles, California. Other locations included Burbank, Downey, New York, LA/Ontario International Airport (which doubled for Miami International Airport), Quebec and Montreal. The film was shot in 147 different locations in only 52 days. DiCaprio reflected, "Scenes that we thought would take three days took an afternoon. Filming ran from April 25—30 in Park Avenue, just outside the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Production moved to Orange, New Jersey and returned to Brooklyn for bank and courthouse scenes. Shooting also took place at the TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Quebec City was chosen for its European character and French feel. A portion of the historic downtown area was modified to resemble Montrichard. Filming ended on May 12 in Montreal.

During post-production Spielberg earned his Bachelor of Arts in Film and Electronic Arts at California State University, Long Beach.


Despite various changes from real-life events, Abagnale believed Spielberg was the only filmmaker who "could do this film justice". However, Abagnale had little involvement with the film. In November 2001, he had "never met nor spoken to Steven Spielberg and I have not read the script. I prefer not to. I understand that they now portray my father in a better light, as he really was. Steven Spielberg has told the screenplay writer (Jeff Nathanson) that he wants complete accuracy in the relationships and actual scams that I perpetrated," Abagnale reported. "I hope in the end the movie will be entertaining, exciting, funny and bring home an important message about family, childhood and divorce."

Abagnale never saw his father when he ran away from home. Spielberg "wanted to continue to have that connection where Frank kept trying to please his father; by making him proud of him; by seeing him in the uniform, the Pan-American uniform." However, Abagnale praised the idea. "Even though I didn't see my dad again, every night after living a brilliant day and meeting many women, and making much money, I'd come back alone to a hotel room and I would just think of my mom and dad and fantasize about getting them back together again, and cry. It's the justification of a fantasy."

Carl Hanratty (portrayed by Tom Hanks) is based on FBI agent Joe Shaye. In the shooting script the character was referred to as Joe Shaye, but was changed to Carl Hanratty for unknown reasons. Abagnale simply escaped from the back of a Boeing 737, not through a toilet. Spielberg "added that for laughs".


Catch Me if You Can deals with themes of "broken homes" and "troubled childhoods". Spielberg's parents divorced when he was a teenager, similar to Frank Abagnale's situation. "Some of my films have had to do with broken homes and people on the run from their sad pasts," Spielberg stated. "But 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." Carl Hanratty also is divorced from his wife, who lives with their daughter in Chicago. Spielberg also wanted to create a film that sympathized with a crook (in this case Frank Abagnale). He explained, "Frank was a 21st century genius working within the innocence of the mid '60s, when people were more trusting than they are now. I don't think this is the kind of movie where somebody could say, 'I have a career plan.'"


Game Show Network aired the 1977 episode of To Tell the Truth that featured Frank Abagnale. Segments were shown on December 29, 2002 and January 1, 2003 as promotion. The marketing department was adamant to market the film as "inspired by a true story". This was to avoid such controversies with A Beautiful Mind and The Hurricane which deviated from history. The premiere took place at Westwood, Los Angeles, California on December 18, 2002.

Catch Me If You Can was released on December 25, 2002, earning slightly above $30 million in 3,225 theaters during its opening weekend. The film went on to gross $164.6 million in North America and $187.5 million in foreign countries, coming at a worldwide total of $352.1 million. The film was a financial success, recouping six times of the $52 million budget. Catch Me If You Can is the second highest Christmas day-opener (behind Ali), and was the eleventh highest grossing film of 2002. Minority Report (also directed by Spielberg) was number 10. Based on 186 reviews collected by Rotten Tomatoes, 96% of reviews were positive. The film was more balanced with 40 critics in Rotten Tomatoes's "Top Critics" poll, receiving a 90% approval rating. By comparison Metacritic collected an average score of 76, based on 38 reviews.

Roger Ebert heavily praised DiCaprio's performance, and concluded "This is not a major Spielberg film, although it is an effortlessly watchable one. Mick LaSalle said it was "not Spielberg's best movie, but one of his smoothest and maybe his friendliest. The colorful cinematography, smart performances and brisk tempo suggest a filmmaker subordinating every other impulse to the task of manufacturing pleasure. Stephen Hunter believed DiCaprio shows "the range and ease and cleverness that Martin Scorsese so underutilized in Gangs of New York".

James Berardinelli observed, "Catch Me if You Can never takes itself or its subjects too seriously, and contains more genuinely funny material than about 90% of the so-called 'comedies' found in multiplexes these days." In addition Berardinelli praised John Williams' film score, which he felt was "more intimate and jazzy than his usual material, evoking (intentionally) Henry Mancini". Peter Travers was one of few who gave the film a negative review. Travers considered Catch Me if You Can to be "bogged down over 140 minutes. A film that took off like a hare on speed ends like a winded tortoise." He also disliked Hanks' performance.

At the 75th Academy Awards, Christopher Walken and John Williams were nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Original Music Score. Walken won the same category at the 56th British Academy Film Awards, while Williams, costume designer Mary Zophres and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson received nominations. DiCaprio was nominated the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor - Motion Picture Drama. Williams also earned a Grammy Award nomination. Elements of the film were later parodied in The Simpsons episode Catch 'Em if You Can.


Further reading

  • Catch Me If You Can: The Amazing True Story of the Youngest and Most Daring Con Man in the History of Fun and Profit (ISBN 0060529717) by Frank Abagnale Jr. and Stan Redding

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