Thursday, February 20, 2014

Catch Me If You Can - Novel in 1980, movie in 2002

It's hard not to be drawn in by the story of Frank Abagnale Jr. Before he'd turned 20, he had been a pilot, a doctor, a teacher and an attorney. He'd defrauded banks for tens of thousands of dollars. He'd crafted fake payroll checks good enough that they were passing inspection. At the age of 21, he was imprisoned in France. After being extradited from France to Sweden after six months nude in a cell, he was deported back to the US and escaped in transit. Not bad for a high school dropout who didn't have the experience or education to have gotten any of these jobs.

Frank Abagnale Jr.
Frank's story is one of amazing luck, bigger balls and no small sense of wonder. It's a tale of a somewhat simpler time, back before we were living in the modern era of paranoia and hyper-awareness. It's also a little larger than life, mostly because bits of it were exaggerated by the ghost writer of the book, Stan Redding, which Abagnale himself has admitted to in interviews. But the core of the story is true, most of the details are true and the man at the heart of it is 100% real, for a fake.

He wasn't a criminal long, eventually being captured (a couple of times) by the FBI, and after serving some time in a US prison, he was released and began helping the FBI catch, well, people like him. He eventually opened his own anti-fraud company, and began the thing he'd always feared - respectable.

The book itself is well-crafted and full of a bunch of moments where you will find yourself going "No fucking way..." only to find out, yep, it really happened. There are a couple of sections in particular where you can't believe the absolute stones on this kid, his willingness to just keep on going, to double down on a lie when everyone else in their right mind would have either cracked or fled. It reads fast and has a certain sense of adventure to it, as if he were one step away from being Robin Hood, a swashbuckler not afraid to regale in his own past glories. The book came out in 1980, but I didn't pick it up until the late 1990s, when I was in college, and the movie had started picking up steam. I'm glad I read the book first, because the book ends before Frank's final capture in the States, and the part where he goes to work for the FBI is left to a tiny little coda, which wraps the story up a little neatly.

When I finished the book, I did a little homework on the story ad found out that a movie was in the works, something I followed with a good deal of interest. The book itself screamed to be on the big screen, and the first thing I found out was that the planned adaptation was going to be directed by Steven Spielberg, who's directed a lot of things I've liked over the years. You should really know who he is without me telling you, but just in case you don't, go watch "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" and then you can thank me later.

So, with Spielberg on board, I kept eyes on the progress of the film, which seemed to bounce back and forth between his "next" project and his "after the next" project, but more details kept coming out. Eventually, it was settled that filming was about to start, and the two stars were announced - Leonardo DiCaprio, as Frank Abagnale, and Tom Hanks as the FBI agent who would eventually bring Frank down. At the time, I wasn't a huge DiCaprio fan (partially because, well, Titanic had been everywhere for the better part of a year only a couple of years before, and I was still sick of hearing about it), but I liked Tom Hanks in most things I'd seen, so I figured I could give it the benefit of the doubt. (The fact that Christopher Walken was in it was a pleasant surprise.)

The film was released in 2002, and did solid business, bringing in $52 million. It was generally liked, and on the whole, it's a good film. It's even in's Top 500. DiCaprio is great in the role (and this was the film that turned me around on him) and Hanks has a moment where I chuckle just thinking about, because it's such a stark contrast from what you expect. The film is a little heavy-handed on the sentimentality regarding Frank and his father, both near the beginning and later in the picture, but you sort of expect that with Spielberg. It's sort of his thing. Still, a lot of people never saw the flick, and that's a shame, because the story is one of those tales that deserves to be savored as the wild tale that it is.

Frank's adventures would be a lot more difficult now, but that just serves to highlight how much we've changed. There's a certain degree of carefree playfulness to most of Frank's story, despite the fact that he's way out of his depth. Oh, for simpler times indeed...

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