Bright Lights Film Journal

Steven Spielberg: A Jew in America: Deconstructing Catch Me If You Can

“If only I knew then what I know now.”

If only, right? Well, Frank Abagnale did know then what you know now. In fact, he knew far more then than most of us will ever know. Starting at age 16, Frankie traded the life of a teen-age wimp for that of an international adventurer and con man, raking in an estimated $3 million and bedding dozens of lovely young babes while passing himself off as an airline pilot, doctor, lawyer, and even a college professor.1 Abagnale was so successful that he “retired” at age 20, and he might have gotten away with all of his crimes if he hadn’t been so careless as to retire in a country where he was wanted by the law.

Abagnale’s exploits, described in his fascinating book Catch Me If You Can,2 were a natural for Hollywood, which is, after all, the historic home of the hustle, the land where image is everything and substance an embarrassment. But strangely, in the hands of Steven Spielberg — Mr. Surface, Mr. Square, the High Priest of Box Office — the story of Frank Abagnale has been turned into a story of growing up Jewish, and growing up alone, in America.3

As a boy, Steven Spielberg hated being Jewish.4 He was ashamed of his Orthodox grandparents and refused to respond when addressed by his Hebrew name. He was furious when his father would not allow him to decorate the house with Christmas lights, and did not appreciate the suggestion that he use blue and white Hanukkah lights instead. “Then everyone will know we’re Jewish!”

Spielberg was unhappy with his parents as well. His father, Arnold Spielberg, a highly successful computer engineer, buried himself in his work and drifted farther and farther from his wife and family. Leah Spielberg, Steven’s mother, was a free spirit who preferred ballet lessons and working on her tan to housework. The Spielbergs’ marriage was a slow-motion spiral to disaster and divorce — long periods of silence and avoidance punctuated by bitter arguments that left Steven and his three younger sisters trembling.

The Spielberg marriage collapsed in Phoenix. A continent away and a decade earlier, Frank Abagnale suffered through a different kind of hell.5 His father, Frank, Sr., was a big, confident man with an endless social life, a big wheel in local Republican politics. He always had a pair of new Cadillacs in the garage, and he loved to treat himself to long winter vacations, deep-sea fishing off the coast of Florida.

Frank Sr. had a storybook marriage. He met his French wife, Paula, during World War II and brought her home to America to live like a queen in the New York suburbs. But Paula wasn’t happy living in her big house while Frank went out on the town. She moved out while Frank was down in Florida and studied to become a dental technician so that she could support herself.

Big Frank never got over it. For the rest of his life he was sure he could get her back, but he died without her. And after Paula left, everything else fell apart as well. Big Frank resigned from the good life, trading in the new Caddies for a second-hand Chevie and taking a job with the post office. The big house, the fancy dinners, the winter vacations — they were all gone.

Rather than choose between his parents, Frankie Jr. ran away from home, striking out on his own at age 16. He soon figured out that if you knew what you were doing you could cash checks for a living instead of working. To impress bank tellers and chicks he started masquerading as a co-pilot6 for Pan American Airlines, discovering as he did so that Pan Am offered its flight personnel a near-endless supply of perks, to which he gladly helped himself, flying all over the world, staying in fine hotels, and banging stewardesses, all for free. After things began to get a little warm, he “retired,” passing himself off first as a non-practicing doctor and then a lawyer. In each case, an admiring “colleague” sought to hire him so aggressively that Frank figured that refusing would blow his cover. Amazingly, he was able to bluff his way through months on the job in both professions with getting caught or killing anyone.7

Life was sweet for Frank, except for the nagging fear of getting caught. The FBI was on his trail (among other things, he once impersonated an FBI agent to recover an incriminating check, a stunt he knew they wouldn’t appreciate), and staying ahead of them was starting to give him migraines. He retired to a small town in France, feeling safe but bored. Unfortunately, a Pan Am stewardess with a long memory, and a vindictive one, happened to see him and informed the local gendarmes. Frank spent six months in a French jail, which almost killed him,8 after which he spent six months in a Swedish jail, which was more like a youth hostel than a prison. The Swedes sent him back to the U.S. Frank made a series of remarkable escapes from custody, but eventually spent four years in the federal penitentiary in Petersburg, Virginia. Once he got out, Frank was miserable as an ex-con, until he realized that he could make a real career for himself as an expert on the prevention of white-collar crime.

For his film, Spielberg naturally tweaked Frank’s story in basic Hollywood fashion, making Abagnale’s adventures even more remarkable than they were, making sure that everything fit, the way that in real life it doesn’t. But Spielberg does more than Hollywoodize the story. He makes Frank’s life a complement and counterpoint to his own. He gives Frankie Stevie’s demons, lets Frankie live Stevie’s fantasies, and eventually lets life teach Frankie the lessons that Stevie hopes Spielberg’s learned.

Catch Me If You Can begins deep in the heart of WASPland, a Rotary Club luncheon where Frank Sr. (Christopher Walken) is receiving a lifetime achievement award. Fifteen-year-old Frank Jr. (Leo DiCaprio) looks on proudly, wearing the ultimate WASP symbol, a prep school jacket,9 while elegantly dressed Mom (Nathalia Baye) blows smoke in everyone’s face.10

Afterwards, the Abagnales have a private celebration in their luxurious suburban home as father and son take turns dancing with Mom by the Christmas tree11 to Judy Garland. Frank Sr. tells the war story Frank Jr. has heard a thousand times before and still loves — “I saw your mother up there on that stage … I didn’t speak a word of French, but I swore I wouldn’t leave Europe without her” — a dream come true, but for the Abagnales, dreams do come true.

Then all at once, the dreams turn to dust. Frank Sr. has some unspecified hassles with the IRS.12 They have to sell the house and the Cadillacs, and move into an apartment. Frank Jr. comes home to find Mom entertaining Rotary Club President Jack Barnes (James Brolin). A month later, the Abagnales are splitsville.

Obviously, Spielberg has done some major surgery on the Abagnale family history, outrageously libeling poor Paula Abagnale in the process. Why? Because it was Leah Spielberg who had a gentleman caller, not Paula. Paula was no fading, petulant glamour girl.13 She left Frank when he had his money, not when he was broke, and after she left she wasn’t shacking up with a sugar daddy. She was working in the decidedly unglamorous profession of dental technician.

Arnold Spielberg was never home in the Spielberg household, but someone was always there, “Uncle Bernie,” Bernie Adler, Arnold’s assistant at GE, who ultimately married Leah Spielberg after she and Arnold divorced. A close family friend who’s always there when Dad isn’t, who ends up marrying Mom? Well, you can do the math, and so could Steven, and he hasn’t forgotten.14

Once the divorce takes place, we see Frank Jr. heading out on his own, learning quickly that image is everything. Just slip into that deep blue uniform with the gold braid, and watch the doors swing open. Spielberg gives us a glowing, romantic picture of the swinging sixties, not the long-haired, radical, pothead sixties,15 but the early sixties, the JFK/Frank ring-a-ding-ding sixties, when a smooth young man with the right attitude could do pretty much what he pleased with the ladies. The glass ceiling was about three feet high in those days. Women were confined to low-skill, low-pay, no-promotion jobs. A working gal who wanted to eat steak had to know how to make a man happy.

Frank’s can’t quite believe how easy it all is. One wink and she’s blushing. Two and she’s guffawing. Three and she’s panting like a steam engine.

While he’s living the high life, Frank hasn’t forgotten about his Dad. He writes long letters home about his career as a co-pilot and once he’s got his act together he takes Frank Sr. out to lunch at a restaurant so fancy they give you a chilled salad fork.16 Not only that, he gives Dad the keys to a new Caddie. But the old man turns him down: “Do you know what the IRS would do to me if they found out I was driving a car like that?”

Spielberg gives us a touching picture of a father and son who love each other but never find the right word to say.17 They’re always glad to see each other but can’t stand to be in the same room together for more than ten minutes.

But it’s not in the book. The real Frank Abagnale never communicated with his father from the time he left home until he returned to the U.S. after spending a year in prison in Europe. Spielberg is giving us his dream of overcoming the alienation he’s felt from his own father.18

While Frank is living the high life, an anti-Frank is on his trail, a man as unhip as Frank is cool. It’s FBI Agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), J. Edgar Hoover’s least favorite son, the flattest flat-foot in the Bureau. Hanratty isn’t just square, he’s a cube, a screwup, an accountant masquerading as a tough guy, an agent who’s never made a collar. Deep, deep in his heart, he just doesn’t know if he can cut it.19

Hanratty runs Frankie to earth at the Tropicana Motel in LA, but Frankie, just too cute to live, convinces Carl that he’s with the Secret Service, and by the time Carl figures out the truth, Frankie’s long gone.20 When he gets back to the Bureau, Carl finds he’s becoming the office joke. One more screwup and it’s goodbye badge, goodbye pension, goodbye life.

Frank, on the other hand, is back in New York and shifting into high. He has so many women he might as well be James Bond. So he becomes Jim. Spielberg shows us a clip of Sean Connery in Goldfinger, and then we see Frank at a tailor’s, trying on a handmade three-piece suit, just like the one Sean was wearing. He even practices saying “Hello, Pussy” in the mirror.21 Once he’s got the suit and the line, he gets an Aston-Martin as well.

Frankie checks into a deluxe hotel in full Bond and catches the eye of super-babe Cheryl Ann, played by super-babe Alias chick Jennifer Garner. He recognizes her as a former Seventeen cover girl, but his illusions, if he’s still got any, take another blow when it turns out that Cheryl rents by the hour. They settle on $1,000 for the night, and Frank gives her a cashier’s check (forged, of course) for $1,400, pocketing $400 in change, the bills still warm from Cheryl’s bra.22

Getting paid $400 to hump a supermodel isn’t a bad night’s work, but somehow Frankie’s still restless. He decides to make a call. We see a solitary figure in a darkened office, a lighted miniature Christmas tree sitting on someone’s desk (not his), and a dippy Christmas novelty song playing on the radio. It’s Carl, working the night shift at the Bureau on Christmas Eve, looking, well, like a Jew on Christmas. The phone rings, and it’s Frank, apologizing for their little misunderstanding at the motel.

Why does Frank call? Because there’s no one else he can call. He’s badder than Bond, but when the hustle’s over and the girl’s gone, he’s all alone, and he’s got nothing, nothing but the old agenbite of inwit gnawing on his ass.23

The rest of Catch Me If You Can is the slow but inevitable union of Frank and anti-Frank, the hipster and the square, the rule breaker and the rule maker, the pursuer and the pursued. Each is half a man. Frank’s all exterior and Carl’s all interior. But they both have a way to go before they can catch up with each other. Carl has to prove himself worthy of catching Frank, while Frank has to learn that he can’t escape Carl.

All of this is Spielberg myth. In real life, Frank and Carl had no contact until after Frank had been in prison. Albagnale never called Carl or any other law enforcement officer. He never worried about hustling people. He only worried about being caught.

What Spielberg is really describing for us is his own life, his attempt to deny and escape his Jewish heritage by achieving a success so overwhelming that he would gain the approval and even the envy of the goyish multitudes who scorned him when he was growing up,24 and his eventual acceptance of his heritage (but only after achieving a success that probably surpassed even his fantasies).

After his chat with Carl, Frank decides that life in NYC is getting just a little too high profile. He decides to cool off at the Riverbend Apartments, a swinging singles paradise outside Atlanta, a Pleasure Island for adults, but even that gets old. The girls are gorgeous, but they’re common and vulgar, and the guys mess with your stereo and spill booze on your Italian knits.25 Frank’s ready for a little honesty, decency, and vulnerability, and he finds it in the form of Brenda Strong, played by Amy Adams, a shy little nurse with braces who’s afraid of losing her job. Frank tells her that he had braces too and passes himself off as a doctor so he can get to know her better.

Brenda naturally worships the ground Dr. Frank walks on, but when her braces come off it releases her inner slut, and she slams her groin into his so hard he practically gets a rupture. Dames! They’re all alike!

But when Frank hears Brenda’s backstory, he forgives her trampy ways. She grew up in privilege, a district attorney’s daughter in Louisiana. As a teenager, her daddy’s golfing partner knocked her up and her family threw her out. Frank suggests that if she comes home on the arm of a graduate of the Harvard Medical School, Daddy might not be so judgmental.

This sets Frank up for a strange and fascinating journey into the heart of deepest WASPdom. The Strongs live in a mansion so obsessively genteel it makes Martha Stewart look like trailer trash. Spielberg shows us soft, gauzy, glowing interiors. With a Mozart piano concerto trilling on the soundtrack, he drops the pace of the film almost to a standstill. We wait forever for the end of each line, yet the last line never quite comes. We’re always one beat away from a resolution, and each beat lasts twice as long as the beat before.

The most intriguing scene is an interview between Frank and Daddy Strong (Martin Sheen). “Tell me the truth,” Daddy tells him. “What is a man like you doing with Brenda?”

Frank, the King of Cool, can hardly keep it together. He twists and turns, but the old man seems to see right through him. “You’re a romantic,” he says. “Men like us are nothing without the women we love.”

Is it true? Could he really marry Brenda and disappear into this strange world of genteel ritual? Could he really stop running and find a place here, a home, and a family to call his own?

It seems impossible and inescapable at the same time. Maybe this is what he really wants. Maybe this is who he really is. He proposes to Brenda, and prepares to surrender to the Strong family’s suffocating embrace. Even a foretaste of Middle-America Hell, sitting in front of the telly and singing “Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?” with Mitch and the Gang doesn’t faze him.26 How can he escape when there’s no place to go?

Frank’s so set on marriage that he slips back to New York and tracks down Dad to tell him he’s getting hitched. “I’m getting it all back, Daddy,” he tells him. “Everything they took from us. The house, the car, everything.”

Frank Sr. doesn’t want to hear it. He’s working for the post office now, and Paula’s remarried, to Rotary Club President Jack Barnes. Somehow, it’s Christmas Eve again (it’s always Christmas Eve in this picture) and the two men sit in a bar listening to Judy Garland on the jukebox without a word to say.27

Frank Jr. is so depressed that he can’t help calling Carl, and can’t help saying just a little more than he should. Carl tracks him down in true bloodhound fashion, arriving at a pre-wedding bash just in time to put the kibosh on the nuptials. A desperate Frank takes Brenda aside and confesses all. Can she forgive him? Does she love him? Will she meet him at the Atlanta airport in a week? Unfortunately not. Dear little Brenda is a fink.

Frank, understandably put out, decides it’s time to blow the country, and works his most spectacular scam. In a not very believable sequence, he escapes right under Carl’s nose, using a bevy of would-be stewardesses as cover. He makes it to France, where the living should be easy, but somehow it’s not. The more he escapes, the more he realizes he wants to be caught. Carl manages to convince his disdainful superiors to buy him a ticket to France and he runs Frank down in the little town of Montrichard. Frank, who has somehow metamorphosed from super smoothie to hysterical hippie, rants and races around a print shop while Carl tells him that it’s all over.

Outside, it’s Christmas Eve once more, for the fourth time in the picture. The people are gathering at the church for evening service. Spielberg shows us eternal France — beautiful, centuries-old stone buildings, a church hung with glowing lights, an angelic choir singing on the soundtrack. It’s perfect, really, just perfect. Unless you’re a Jew, of course, in which case they turn you over to the Gestapo.28

And the Gestapo does show up, in the form of the French police, the two-tone squeal of their sirens bringing the memory of a thousand French films. They grab Frank, throw him in the car, and cart him off to a rotting medieval hulk of a prison. A year later, Carl finally springs him, cleans him up, and takes him back to New York. On the plane, he gives Frank some bad news: his father is dead.

Frank flips out and seems ready to puke his guts out. As the plane is landing, they take him to the john. Once inside, he unscrews the toilet from the floor and makes his escape through the bowels of the plane.29 In another not very believable sequence, Frank somehow makes his way to the Barnes family’s elegant suburban home, where it’s Christmas again. The Barnes’ house glows with the beautiful Christmas lights the Spielbergs never had. Frank, looking like a filthy hippie, walks across the snow to a picture window and stares inside. On the other side of the window, a little girl stares back at him, a little girl who has the home he’s wanted, the home that should be his.30 He’s been replaced.

Steven Spielberg was the oldest child in his family, with three younger sisters, and he hated all of them, particularly Janie, who was born immediately after him. He loved thinking up ways to scare them, and everyone who knew him as a boy agrees that the brutal shocks in Spielberg’s films, particularly Poltergeist and Raiders of the Lost Ark, come from his childhood obsessions.31

The police arrive. They arrest Frank and put him in a squad car. Jack and Paula Barnes come to the door with their daughter. In an immensely elaborate shot, Frank looks at his mom, her husband, and her daughter through the windshield of the squad car. They pose like the holy family in their doorway, Christmas lights arching overhead. A red revolving light sits on the dash, to remind us that we’re in a police car. Frank’s crushed face is reflected in the rear-view mirror. They’ve got everything; he’s got nothing. They’re sitting down to turkey, he’s headed for Buchenwald.

Catch Me If You Can forms a remarkable counterpoint to perhaps the most famous (certainly the most unendurable) Christmas film in Hollywood history, It’s a Wonderful Life. In that wretched film, poor George Bailey, reduced to despair after being accused of theft, is rescued by the spirit of Christmas, as family and friends affirm their love for him. In Catch Me If You Can, Frank Abagnale, a real thief, sees the spirit of Christmas as denying him everything he’s wanted. The golden circle of forgiveness and acceptance shuts him out instead of drawing him in.

“It’s your Fourth, not mine,” said Frederick Douglass, trying to explain to America what it was like to be a slave. “It’s your Christmas, not mine,” says Spielberg, trying to explain what it is like to be a Jew.

Poor Frank faces trial devoid of hope. He’s sure to get a stiff sentence, and even when he gets out, so what? He tried the swinging singles scene — life in the lane, sippin’ and dippin’ but never stickin’, and that didn’t work. He tried the suburban thing, wife and kids, two cats in the yard, and that didn’t work. So what does work? Let me put it to you this way, pal: Is there a balm in Gilead?

Yes. There is a balm in Gilead. It’s the job, the craft, the task. The job is always there, and it will never fail you. The man is nothing, the work is all. There’s always something new to learn, a twist you haven’t seen before. You can always get better. Carl springs Frank on condition that he work on bank fraud with the FBI. After a pro forma struggle that probably fools no one, Frank renounces his wicked ways and gets with the program. Sniffing ink, checking perforations, gauging the rag content of forty-pound bond — this is living!

The climax of Catch Me If You Can is “right” — it’s what we in the audience want — but Spielberg can’t help gilding the lily, just as he did at the end of Schindler’s List. It’s the Jewish mother in him, I guess. A series of text messages inform us that Frank Abagnale is happily married, with three sons! His list of clients includes some of the biggest companies in America! He makes millions of dollars a year! He and Carl are still good friends!32 Such a boy!

Afterwords

Catch Me If You Can is available on DVD in a “deluxe” two-disc edition (you don’t have to pay extra for it). The second disc has interviews with all the principals, but unless you have an insatiable appetite for high-level Hollywood suck-up, it’s not exactly riveting. The single heartfelt comment comes from Jennifer Garner, who admits that even though she really didn’t get to know Leo, she didn’t have a problem making out with him. Because he’s “lovely.”

  1. Naturally, being a college professor was the least demanding hustle. Just stay one chapter ahead of your students, and you’re a genius. []
  2. The obvious question about Abagnale’s book is, is it true? I have no way of knowing. His numerous escapes from custody in particular border on the miraculous, or so it would seem. As far as I know, no one has attempted to prove or disprove his claims. []
  3. This assessment assumes that Catch Me If You Can is essentially Spielberg’s picture. In fact, the idea of making the film was sold to DreamWorks by Jeff Nathanson, who also wrote the first draft of the script before Spielberg decided to direct. But the film departs so far from Abagnale’s life, and corresponds so closely to Spielberg’s own, that I’m guessing it was Spielberg who made the changes. []
  4. Frank McBride’s excellent biography, simply titled Stephen Spielberg, tells you at least as much as you want to know about Spielberg. Because Spielberg became so famous while still a young man, virtually everyone who ever knew him has been interviewed about him at length. []
  5. What was it that guy Tolstoy said about families? Oh yeah. “All happy families are the same. All unhappy families are different.” []
  6. Abagnale figured that if he said he was a co-pilot, no one would ever expect him to know how to fly a plane. []
  7. As a doctor, Abagnale supervised a group of interns, who loved him because he let them do all the work. “He let us be doctors!” As a lawyer, he worked for an overbearing schmuck who paid him an attorney’s salary to run errands. []
  8. How bad was it? Abagnale spent six months naked and alone in a pitch-black room with a ceiling so low he couldn’t stand up, with a bucket to shit in, living on bread and water. Not once in six months was he allowed to wash himself, brush his teeth, shave, or cut his hair or nails. Vive la France! []
  9. The Abagnales, obviously, were not WASPs, but to Jews all Christians look alike. []
  10. Twice in the film Frank Jr. angrily takes a cigarette out of Mom’s fingers. “I thought you were going to quit!” If I had ever tried that with my WASP mom she would have 1) laughed her ass off, and 2) told me to go to hell. “If you ain’t smokin’, honey, you ain’t livin’!” []
  11. The Christmas tree that Steven Spielberg never had. []
  12. In his book, Abagnale is never clear about what happened to his father. One guesses that he was caught in a major impropriety, and his big-shot friends quietly informed him that if he wanted to avoid prosecution he would have to kiss the good life goodbye. []
  13. In real life, Paula and Frank met when she was 15 and he was 28. She would have been in her mid-thirties when she left Frank, far younger than the aging beauty that Spielberg gives us. And the marriage wasn’t quite the storybook romance we’re given in the film. The Abagnales got married because they had to: Paula was pregnant. []
  14. Spielberg has been notably ungenerous when speaking of both his parents. “She never grew up, so we never grew up,” he said of his mother. []
  15. Spielberg has pretty much admitted that he took no interest at all in the youth culture of the sixties. It wouldn’t surprise me if he didn’t know who John Lennon was. []
  16. That is so Beverly Hills. []
  17. Walken’s performance is particularly affecting. If you could love your dad even when he was being an ass, and maybe even when he was being an asshole, you’re probably going to like this picture. []
  18. Spielberg has commented ruefully that “my father was as big a workaholic then as I am now,” but he’s also been quite harsh on the old man. []
  19. But we know Carl can cut it, even if he doesn’t. Why? Because he’s listening to Ellington’s “Take the A Train” on the car radio, the 1940 version with the Blanton-Webster band. That’s nerd coolness of a high order. []
  20. The real Abagnale pulled a stunt like this, pretending to be Hanratty, but this was after his life of crime was over, and he’d been behind bars. When the real Frank and Carl first met, Frank was in federal custody. []
  21. Abagnale was probably not the only teen-ager to do this in 1965. []
  22. The real Abagnale hustled a whore in precisely this manner, but she wasn’t a Seventeen cover girl. Throughout this film, Spielberg displays a constant mistrust of women. They’ve always got that whited sepulchre thing going. []
  23. What’s agenbite of inwit? It’s remorse of conscience, anomie, acedia, angst — the fucking dark night of the soul. []
  24. According to McBride’s book, Spielberg was a virtual parody of the short, bespectacled nerd as both a boy and a teenager. When Schindler’s List came out (which also marked Spielberg’s coming out as a Jew), Spielberg complained bitterly about anti-Semitic hazings and beatings that he said he had endured in high school. Some of his classmates essentially accused him of lying, while others found his statements believable, although no one claimed to have seen Spielberg take a beating. []
  25. I hate it when that happens! []
  26. Even at the time, it seemed unbelievable that people really watched Sing Along with Mitch. Week after week, in the heart of the sixties, millions of people tuned in to watch an all-male chorus pound out abysmal pop tunes from yesteryear in the squarest possible manner. []
  27. Judy was also on the soundtrack when we saw Frank Jr. dancing with Paula by the Christmas tree. So Spielberg likes Judy, but doesn’t like girls. Well, you can do the math. []
  28. Spielberg, like many American Jews, sees France as incorrigibly anti-Semitic. []
  29. The real Abagnale did escape from a plane in just this manner, though not quite so spectacularly. He was not in custody, but the police were waiting for him at the airport. []
  30. The little girl looks strikingly like the alien in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. What’s up with that? You tell me. []
  31. When the current film rating system was established, no one could have imagined that a scene as shocking as the “melting Nazis” sequence that concludes Raiders of the Lost Ark would make it into a PG film. Only Spielberg’s hunger to terrify, and his hunger for the additional profits that a PG rating would bring, made it happen. []
  32. As far as I know, it was George Lucas who started this trick of adding postscripts to a film, with American Graffiti. It was manipulative then, and now it’s gotten totally out of hand. []