Dir. Steven Spielberg. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken
Steven Spielberg’s top six movies, per the AFI in 2007:
- Schindler’s List (8th)
- E.T. (24th)
- Jaws (56th)
- Raiders of the Lost Ark (66th)
- Saving Private Ryan (71st)
- Close Encounters of the Third Kind (64th in 1998, off the list in 2007)
Steven Spielberg’s top seven movies, per Metacritic:
- Schindler’s List (94)
- E.T. (91)
- Saving Private Ryan (91)
- Close Encounters of the Third Kind (90)
- Jaws (87)
- Lincoln (86)
- Raiders of the Lost Ark (85)
Steven Spielberg’s top seven movies, per IMDb rankings:
- Schindler’s List (8.9)
- Saving Private Ryan (8.6)
- Raiders of the Lost Ark (8.4)
- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (8.2)
- Catch Me if You Can (8.1)
- Jurassic Park (8.1)
- Jaws (8.0)
Steven Spielberg’s top seven movies, per Letterboxd rankings:
- Schindler’s List (4.4)
- Raiders of the Lost Ark (4.2)
- Saving Private Ryan (4.2)
- Jurassic Park (4.1)
- Jaws (4.1)
- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (4.0)
- Catch Me if You Can (4.0)
Pro captu lectoris habent sua fata libelli, naturally, and if the AFI does put out a new top 100 list in the near future, then we might see where Spielberg rates for those people with as many as nine(!) extra movies to consider since the last time they checked in on the guy. I know that if you’d asked me what the “canonical” Spielberg movies were before I made this list, I would have given you the six AFI movies plus Jurassic Park. They are not my favorite Spielbergs, nor are they necessarily what I’d call the best of his work (and I am just not even going to bring that up here, because that’s its own weird mess). I would guess, though, that they are the cross-section of his career that is the right mix of blockbuster and Oscars, unifying audience ballyhoo and critical cachet alike. The miracle year of 1993, where the man directed the top-grossing film of the year and the Best Picture winner, and they weren’t even the same movie. The sublime action of Jaws and Raiders, the friendly skies of Close Encounters and E.T., and look, while I can’t say anything nice about Saving Private Ryan, it certainly exists. I don’t think it’s controversial—or, to put this another way, I wouldn’t have guessed it might be controversial—to say that the man’s best work is very firmly, perhaps overwhelmingly, in the 20th Century. Spielberg himself just seems more interested in the 20th Century, and although there’s already some level of revisionism to support a reading of 21st Century Spielberg as masterful in his own right (Matt Zoller Seitz, Chris Evangelista, etc.), it’s hard for me to find the proof in that pudding while I’m eating it. Pick your fighter among the likes of A.I. or Bridge of Spies or Minority Report or The Post, but I just can’t find a movie that feels like it’s more important to understanding Spielberg the auteur than any of those seven that I think have to headline his body of work.
In doing that easy research, there were somethings that surprised me even more than Twitter trying to tell me how good Minority Report is, actually. What I did not expect was to see that Last Crusade, a movie I have been banging the drum for as one of Spielberg’s all-around better entries, is this relatively beloved. Nor was I ready to see that E.T. is, in 2021, a critical favorite as opposed to a top audience pick. (It slides into the top ten of both the IMDb and Letterboxd lists, but like, what if people continue to think The Post is good?) And, of course that Catch Me If You Can is in the top 25% of your average movie-tracking viewer’s Spielberg list. I looked this stuff up because I was going to lead this post off with some comment like, “I don’t think anyone has Catch Me if You Can as a top-10 Spielberg movie,” and it turns out, actually, they do! If you left it up to that population of Internet people who live to give star ratings to movies, Catch Me if You Can is Spielberg’s 21st Century standout. That fascinates me. It’s not that it isn’t stylish or entertaining or well-made or good, and I think it is in fact all four of those things, but that greatness is not a quality I would have ever thought to ascribe to the movie. I’m not trying to be snooty here, maybe for the first time in my life, because the greatness I’m talking about is not even using Death in Venice as a benchmark. The benchmark is Raiders, or Jaws. The B+ movies by that standard are Spielberg’s visitors from space, which I can’t say have ever done all that much for me, but there is something wonderful in “I’ll – be – right – here,” or the little musical greeting that feels so much more potent when its source is right there in front of God, Francois Truffaut, and everybody. There’s no moment in Catch Me if You Can that has that power, no moment that I think is even intended to come close. Say what you will about Spielberg, and trust me, I’ve said it, but those seven movies of his that I think best represent him are what he looks like when the film is guided by ambition. Catch Me if You Can is not an ambitious movie in the same way that E.T. feels ambitious, let alone Jurassic Park; there is no point in the film where it feels like only Spielberg could have made it.
Why Catch Me if You Can is rising the great crowdpleaser’s rankings among the tomato-packin’ groundlings of these websites seems, to me, like a statement of how entertaining about an hour of this movie is. The film slices up pretty neatly, if irregularly and asynchronously, into five pieces: young Frank, Frank and Pan Am, Frank plays doctor, Frank meets the Strongs, and Carl nabs Frank. The stuff where Frank pretends to be an airline pilot, albeit pretty badly, is a blast. Think about that wonderful Ellen Pompeo smirk, a line that sounds lewd even though the meaning of the word itself seemed about as sexy as dry breakfast cereal when the woman behind the counter said it: “Are you my deadhead?” It’s wonderful because she says it to us, her face filling the screen, her eyes even with our eyes, and the invitation in her voice turns out to be, y’know, that kind of invitation. It’s a thrilling little moment, and the thrill comes from being put in Frank’s place. Over and over again, we see through Frank’s eyes as this pretend Pan Am copilot passes phony checks, beds willing stewardesses, decides which bank teller is most likely to be won over by him. This would be fun enough even if he were being played some random early 2000s hotshot, but it’s terribly exciting for the person whose eyes we share to be Leonardo DiCaprio, The Beach or not still a magnetic presence. I don’t know if it’s fun, necessarily, to watch a young man figure out the rudiments of forging checks, but it is fun to watch him game people. When his father (Walken) drops a necklace down for a sales associate to see, he’s only offering a bribe. He’s too old and looks too much like Christopher Walken to suggest there’s anything behind that moment but a mercenary impulse in the early morning hours on a cold and prosaic Manhattan morning. When Frank does it on the plane and takes that important next step of clasping it around the stewardess’s neck himself, looking like Leonardo DiCaprio not too far out from Titanic, it’s easier to put down “this is a fairly gross little con” and take up “this is a fairly gross little con but it seems like everyone’s going feel pretty good about themselves by the end of it.” Bilking all this money out of banks and airports, flying around the country for nothing, and then using the money to do as much James Bond cosplay as a teenager in the ’60s can dream of is funny. It’s obviously illegal, and it’s dishonest, and yadda yadda yadda, but it’s also hard to think of a crime movie where the criminal feels so harmless. This is the genius of the fun we have watching Frank goof off at the expense of banks like cathedrals and Pan American Airlines: no person gets hurt by it, except maybe Carl Hanratty (Hanks) and his pride. Catch Me if You Can asks you to pull for Frank, and does not ask you to pull for Frank as he kills or tortures or something like that. (Eventually, as Frank starts to yearn for family again and gets involved with the Strong family, his playacting as doctor and lawyer gets uglier because it’s not just screwing with a hospital, but screwing with people who trust him much longer than a bank teller has to trust him, and for much higher stakes.) The one time we see him caught before Carl gets to him, he’s getting put out on the street because the check he gave a motel manager bounced. Pan Am can get hurt without too much worry, but this guy who probably needs each check to clear gets some form of justice right away. You’re kicking me out in the middle of the night, just like that? Frank asks, at this point realizing the game is up and he’s not going to lie his way out of it. Where should I go? The motelier is surprisingly generous for someone who’s up at 3:00 a.m. to evict someone. You’re a kid, he says. Go home.
On my most recent viewing of this movie, which has to push me to seven or eight at this point, what interested me most was the young Frank section. The movie gets a little psychoanalytical based on the events of Frank’s world falling apart, but this time it felt like an effective way to push what, as a younger person watching this, I always kind of ignored. Frank is not even twenty years old when he gets arrested. The guy making a killing off of phony checks is playing the game like an adult but reads the rules like a kid. He thinks that if he can get the money, he’ll be able to convince his parents to get back together again, as if that were the sole reason they split up. He buys his dad a new car to replace the beloved one that had to be sold; his dad, who the IRS has caught up with and then some, doesn’t even hold the keys all that long before telling his son he can’t take it because the IRS will destroy him if they find him driving this hot new model. He thinks that if he dresses like James Bond and drives the chic little car, he’ll have all the sophistication that character suggests. There’s that funny moment where a waiter topping off Carl’s coffee in a diner helps Carl realize that “Barry Allen” is the Flash, which helps Carl realize that his target’s pseudonyms are kid-friendly. Most of all, there’s one of those Christmastime calls where Frank asks Carl just to leave him alone because he’s moved on and is tired of playing. It’s a breathtakingly naive moment, and then I think about the kids I know from my day job, and I can imagine any number of them asking for peace and hoping that because they’re done, the game might be over. In some ways, it seems that only a kid could would be able to go on this spree. It takes energy and faith that only a young person is likely to have.
What almost singlehandedly sinks the movie is Jeff Nathanson’s insistence on making every potentially emotional moment a callback to some other previous moment. Unfortunately for the movie, you cannot make the whole screenplay out of callbacks any more than you can make the entire airplane out of the black box, especially not if your airplane/black box hybrid has to stay in the air for 140 minutes. (This includes credits, obviously, but this movie is absolutely on fumes by the time Carl flies out to France to put the bracelets on Frank, and then it’s got an entirely new box of plot to open.) The two little mice fell into a bucket of cream monologue barely has the sauce for a single reading, let alone the multiple ones that the movie puts it through. The “Where are you going tonight, Frank? Someplace exotic?” bit is stagey the second time out, lacking all the malice that Walken manages to get into it the first time. Frank watches TV to learn how to be a doctor, but it’s less funny when he does the exact same thing to learn how to pass as a lawyer. The knock-knock joke gets two plays in a shockingly short amount of time. The Christmas run-ins that Frank and Carl have are more interesting when no one is yelling HEY IT’S CHRISTMAS WOWEE WHAT A COINKYDINK while they happen. It’s possible that even more than the fun of Frank scam Pan Am, this is the thing that makes this movie so well-liked on the Internet. The movie has an awful lot of inside jokes, and it offers to let you in on every single one of them at the expense of telling a tighter, more coherent story.