Catch Spielberg if you can
One of the fundamental truths in writing about art is that all art is about itself, not about the subject matter it presents.
Under this concept, a novel is about the process of novel writing, fine art is about the process of creating art, film making is about film making.
Since I was young, I struggled against this concept, always thinking that my art was about “something real,” so that if wrote about nature, it was about nature, if I wrote about a person, it was about that person, if it was about a place, my art was that place.
As I grow older I begin to surrender to the concept because more and more I see how likely the concept is true. Poets are interested in writing poems, the subject matter is the material with which they shape the work, the real involvement is how this piece fits into that, what point of view etc.
In some ways, Steven Spielberg seems to be the perfect example of this concept, a fact that drives me crazy as a relatively inexperienced critic. Many of his films seem to be remakes of previous films he had seen growing up – a vast library of image to which I could never have access.
Yet I am familiar enough from having similar film and TV interests and growing up during the same time period to catch some of these references – finding that common root from which some of his ideas may be generated.
So when I first encountered Spielberg’s film “Catch me if you can,” I immediately thought of the film I grew up seeing: “The Great Imposter.”
Both films are based on real life events. Both deal with someone who took on roles for which he was not qualified. Both involve the pursuit and eventual apprehension of this character.
Whether or not Spielberg derived his idea from The Great Imposter, I don’t know. But his film exceeds the original in nearly every aspect but one.
The Great Imposter is for the most part is much more humorous film, allowing it to side step the more terrifying implications the film essentially raises about an unqualified person taking on jobs that put other people’s lives at risk.
In this film, Tony Curtis plays a character who goes from profession to profession, pretty much learning to do each as he goes along. War surgeon to air plane pilot, he drags us along with the sheer thrill of the chase.
“Catch me if you can” – while funny at moments – is no comedy. It contains all the classic Spielberg elements he uses to great effect in most of his other film and lends to this film and aspect of character that is sorely missing from “The Great Imposter.”
Spielberg’s film is not light-hearted romp through never-never land, dragging us through impossible situations that lack consequences – which is what we get in “The Great Imposter.” From the start, we deal with characters – whom Spielberg has previously provided us in a fictional venue – who are presented much more fully in a non-fiction format: the somewhat irresponsible father, the divided family, the impact and social strains of a struggling family upon its kids.
Also different from the earlier comedy, Spielberg’s film does not portray the main character has heroic – except in a sad sense to his father who perhaps admires in the boy gall the father lacks, and sees the son as getting even with the government for real or imagined slights against the father.
In some ways, Spielberg actually presents us with a classic tragedy, and as in classic tragedy, this film presents us with a family that starts out relatively content, but though some failing in the father or mother, it falls into ruin. These are well-crafted characters, people who have typical human failings and suffer the usual misery in trying to deal with them.
The father – who appears to have run afoul of the government for not paying his taxes – goes from scheme to scheme in an effort to save the family. He is a good hearted, but not completely reliably sort who fights a losing battle as each scheme fails and he sinks to a lower and lower level on the economic scale with the family fracturing as a result.
Whether or not this tendency to failure leads the man’s wife to cheat on him, the film does not make clear. Perhaps it is merely here human failing or the need for her to find happiness the preoccupied failing father cannot provide. The film does not portray her as sluttish, but rather as a woman who need more than her husband can give. This, however, does not lessen the impact on the son – who is the main character of this film – and each disaster serves to build the solid and tragic foundation for the rest of the film.
Unlike some other Spielberg films where the family drama is imposed upon the story in an apparent short cut to providing the film with depth, nearly every inch of film expended on the home life and family background gives “Catch me if you can” increasing credibility and complexity that further separates it from “The Great Imposter.”
One important distinction between the two films is that Spielberg’s character does not actually perform the duties for the professions he adopts. He appears to be largely a confidence man who has found a financial niche he can exploit and exploits it. This is a character who knows he is a criminal and appears to struggle with that concept, even to the point where he makes annual holiday calls to the man who is hunting him.
He is haunted by his deeds but does not seem to know how to stop – while at the same time when pursued, flees.
The character seeks answers from his father – whom he cannot help – and from the father figure, the cop, whose only answer is to turn himself in.
The relationship between cop and boy becomes as important as the relationship between father and son – and while I do not know if Spielberg is spinning a tale of wisdom as he sometimes does in his fictional account – we get a growing tension as the boy is increasingly pressured to choose between a bad father and one that is good.
This relationship is so important in this Spielberg film that Spielberg cannot afford to jeopardize the audience’s high opinion of the copy by making him into a buffoon the way pursuers in The Great Imposter are. Spielberg appears to have learned a valuable lesson from the film remake of “The Fugitive” in which the classic chase is use as a means to develop the relationship between boy and cop, one that grows more positive with the increasing pursuit.
Huge issues of family, of talent, of aspiration are being worked out in this film, adding once more to the litany of Spielberg’s film where character struggle to resolve some aspect of these same issues.
These are universal questions – the way they were when the Greeks first raised them 2,500 years ago, and they are questions likely to remain with us 2,500 years from now, when a still more complicated modern society puts pressure of the concept of man’s personal identify and the meaning of family.
Of course, we must ask who is the main character in “Catch me if you can?”
While most of us as youth (and some long after) struggle to pin down just who we are and where we belong, this character raises the same questions while being hunted as an international criminal.
What makes “Catch me if you can” intriguing for me is how Spielberg adapted his set of themes for a non-science fiction reality, proving that these themes can work in any genre.
If there is a flaw in this film, it comes with is pacing. We don’t always get the increased drum beat and increased tension typical of the chase the way we do in films like The Fugitive or even in some other Spielberg films such as ET.
Yet the film is so character rich we almost don’t need the rush we get from the traditional chase. Thinking about great films later – even ones with brilliant chase scenes – the enduring impression comes out of character and plot, and this film presents us with plenty of both, enough to make it more than memorable in my mind.