Let's watch To Tell the Truth, always a good show with something interesting on there. Sure enough, we have to guess which of the three men on tonight's episode is really Frank Abagnale Jr (Leonardo DiCaprio), one of the most successful conmen ever to emerge from nineteen-sixties America. By the time he was caught, he had amassed around two and a half million dollars thanks to his expert way with cheque fraud, and his unabashed ability to pose as anyone he wished, always convincingly. When he was finally caught, he was nineteen years old...
The twenty-first century showed a distinct interest in true stories, whether it was reality television on the small screen, or biopics and documentaries on the big screen, but one of the first and best came from director Steven Spielberg here apparently employing near-effortless ease to depict this conman yarn as closely to the self-image, if not the letter, of the actual Abagnale as possible. The result was inspiring to the likes of Mad Men on television, and any number of movie versions of tall tales that were too good to be true, but happened to be anyway (more or less), all offering big stars opportunities to dress up in vintage threads and have the design and special effects departments work together to render it convincing on the surface.
Making it convincing to the audience had to go further than simply putting a caption up at the start to that effect, and here Spielberg delivered one of his most purely entertaining works, with a light touch to the comedy and a hint of melancholy so it wasn't all too superficial. At its heart, as with so many of his productions, the search for a father figure took up most of the drama, so while Frank had a father (Christopher Walken) - and a mother (Nathalie Baye) - when they got divorced he ran away and put his talent for smooth talking to good use. He was just sixteen, but had already fooled his fellow classmates at his new school that he was their new French teacher, so the film has it that it was only a matter of time before a life of crime beckoned.
After forging a few cheques and not getting very far, he became entranced with the idea that pilots lived a great existence, well paid, respected, garlanded with privileges, and began to pose as one, even pretending to be a co-pilot and getting away with it. But while his sheer cheek is a pleasure to watch as he graduated to fake doctor and fake lawyer, we're aware that he has to pay for this chutzpah evenutally and the man bringing him to book is F.B.I. agent Carl Hanratty, played by Tom Hanks in a less showy role than DiCaprio's, but no less skillfully applied, Abagnale becomes his obsession, so if you imagine the boy as the shark from Jaws, Hanratty is the three heroes with major league fishing on their minds, except here you kind of want the shark to get away.
Much of this showed the value of keeping what was actually a pretty serious story as breezy as possible as Frank exploits the gullibility of the American public, yet curiously we don't hate him for it thanks to a perfectly cast DiCaprio. For once that baby face truly suited the role, and crucially you could accept that others believed he was who he said he was, but Spielberg ensured we recognised the sadness and lost quality beneath Frank's slick facade. In a strange way Hanratty (a composite character) becomes a more solid father to him than his actual father (and how nice to see Walken essay a normal part and do it with such touching flair), hence the Christmas Eve phone calls Frank makes to the agent, which the lawman twigs is down to the boy having nobody else to contact - all those people around and the kid was lonely. Maybe it goes on a little too long, but it's hard to see what could be eliminated without breaking its considerable spell. Fantastic title sequence and some of the best music John Williams ever wrote for Spielberg, as well.
His best films combine thrills with a childlike sense of wonder, but when he turns this to serious films like The Color Purple, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich and Bridge of Spies these efforts are, perhaps, less effective than the out-and-out popcorn movies which suit him best. Of his other films, 1941 was his biggest flop, The Terminal fell between two stools of drama and comedy and one-time Kubrick project A.I. divided audiences; Hook saw him at his most juvenile - the downside of the approach that has served him so well. Also a powerful producer.