The true story of Frank Abagnale is fascinating and to be honest pretty unbelievable. Perfect fodder therefore, for a movie. Abagnale claims to have impersonated everything from doctors to airline pilots, conned millions of dollars from banks around the world and flown over a million miles for free, deadheading as a pilot from Pan Am. We need to scroll back to the late 60’s and early 70’s to when Abagnale was just a teenager for the start of his career. His first “mark” was his own father, after he fixed a scam whereby he “bought” tyres and other car parts on his father’s fuel card and then persuaded the garage mechanics to give him the cash and keep the parts in exchange. Very soon he was cashing dud cheques and adopting false identities including the infamous Pan Am pilot to pull off more and more audacious crimes. Once caught, he still did not give up, escaping from custody twice, once by leaping from a moving jet liner and again by impersonating a prison inspector. Although some of Abagnale’s claims are denied by those he supposedly defrauded, there is plenty of evidence to link him to many crimes and he remains one of the most successful confidence tricksters of our time.
Turning back to the movie, the rights to Abagnale’s autobiography were sold a number of times during the 1980s, until eventually ending up with Steven Spielberg and the Dreamworks studio. Originally released in the UK in 2003, this Blu-ray is a great re-boot for this enchanting film. Starring Leonardo Di-Caprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken and Martin Sheen as well as introducing Amy Adams to the big screen, Spielberg certainly attracted a top flight cast. Filmed in just 52 days, it feels like a period piece, made in the early 70s to a reasonable budget and not too polished. From the long, retro style animated opening credits through to the final moments, the film adopts quite a laid back pace and barely gets above a jog, even during some of the pacier scenes.
The film opens with a flashback to Frank Abagnale Senior (Christopher Walken) receiving a civic award, while his son looks on. Actually, this is not quite true, as we get the end of the movie first, with the culmination of the story played out in the first couple of scenes. What soon becomes clear is that Frank Junior has inherited all his dad’s charm and talent for manipulation, but where his father has put his efforts into running an almost legitimate business, he is soon exploiting his skills to make money dishonestly. The catalyst and one must suppose, Frank’s rationale for his dishonesty is what he perceives as the unfair treatment of his father over an unspecified row with the IRS. When the banks refuse to lend Frank Snr the money he needs to save his business, his home and ultimately his marriage, Frank Junior starts to exact his revenge.
One must bear in mind that Di-Caprio is playing Abagnale from a sixteen year old through to his mid twenties. At the time he was twenty eight and it is a bit of a stretch to see him as an adolescent, but this can be largely overlooked. Part of Abagnale’s confidence and success came from looking older than his years, so it is not too much of a problem to see an older actor playing the role.
As the dud cheque scam becomes harder and harder to achieve, Frank realises he needs to spread his wings and move to another town. He acquires an airline pilot’s uniform and makes himself the appropriate ID to get him through the airport and onto the flight deck. Of course, he never intends to fly the plane, just sit the in the jump seat and fly for free. At this stage, the authorities have no idea who he is, or the extent of the scams Frank is pulling. Enter FBI tenacious investigator Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks), expert in financial fraud. He is soon hard on Abagnale’s tail, but frustratingly, he is always one step behind. At the same time, Abagnale is starting to feel lonely and isolated. His parents have divorced and he feels no affinity or connection with his mother and contact with his father becomes strained as Frank Snr realises his son is not making his fortune legitimately. Agent Hanratty uses this feeling of loneliness against his quarry, mocking him when he contacts him for having no one else to talk to. Hanks does not give his best performance and he is not the most convincing character in the movie. There are too many leaps and assumptions in the plot to give a joined up view of the investigation and the authority of a senior investigator is simply not there.
Abagnale’s response to the mocking is to find a more social position and begins to impersonate a doctor. He negotiates a role that keeps him away from actually having to treat patients, but it does bring him into contact with troubled nurse Brenda Strong (Amy Adams). She has suffered a lot in her young life, but Frank offers some semblance of solidity and things look to be going well for them. A shame then, that his life is just a tissue of lies. Adams is perfect for this role, with a girlish innocence and freshness that adds to her characters vulnerability. This plays well against Di-Caprio’s Abagnale, with his almost unshakable self belief.
The last third of the story is squashed into a few scant minutes, possibly due to lack of budget – or at least filming days, with Abagnale’s trip around Europe and capture in France not really well covered. Apparently this film was made in just fifty two days and this latter section does feel rushed. I don’t think this is coincidental either. That being said, the story does land properly, so to speak, but you do end up feeling a little cheated.
This may not be Spielberg’s finest movie, but it is a charming, crime thriller that avoids sensationalising criminal activity while celebrating the talents of one of the most infamous fraudsters of recent times.
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