Steven Spielberg’s career is defined by abandonment. Dysfunctional fathers and lost children haunt his films at every turn, from E.T.‘s lonely children of divorce all the way down to the hopelessly devoted android boy of A.I. At times, it seems he just can’t resist, forcing the archetype where it doesn’t belong, trying in his meticulous way to reckon with his own abandonment issues. 2012’s Lincoln shoehorns the president’s assassination in just so Spielberg can linger on the reaction of his son Tad; Jeff Goldblum’s status as an absentee dad has little bearing on the plot of The Lost World. In a way, Spielberg has been making Peter Pan movies since the very beginning, even if his only strict adaptation came almost twenty years into his career.
Hook was a turning point in Spielberg’s career. Until then, the protagonists of his films had been predominantly lost boys, children fathers left behind. Starting with Hook, this preoccupation evolved into something more mature, taking steps towards understanding the other side of the equation. Jurassic Park‘s Alan Grant learns to embrace his paternal instincts; Minority Report’s John Anderton struggles with his guilt at failing to stop his son’s kidnapping. Spielberg, now a father stepping farther and farther away from the angst of his youth, was also growing up.
In 2002, however, he got another shot at the subject that had loomed heavy over the first half of his career. On its surface, Catch Me If You Can is a featherweight con-man dramedy with a magnetic lead performance; dig a little deeper, and it’s the Peter Pan movie that Spielberg’s career had always been building to, a minor masterpiece that coalesces everything about Spielberg’s worldview into one sweet, zippy, and startlingly melancholy package.
Catch Me If You Can is the story of Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio), a notorious con artist who posed as an airline pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer all before his 19th birthday, cashing millions of dollars worth of fraudulent checks along the way. He’s not a one-to-one Spielberg analogue–although there’s a cheap thinkpiece to be written about Spielberg’s films as con jobs or something–but the two have one thing in common. The early scene where Abagnale’s parents inform him of their impending separation is heartbreaking; Spielberg sells the emotion by cutting directly from a lawyer informing Frank that he must choose between his parents to Frank running full-tilt away from the decision, with no time for forced agonizing.
Abagnale’s parents did indeed separate in reality, but Jeff Nathanson’s script adds a telling detail that doesn’t quite conform to Abagnale’s version of events. In the film version of Catch Me If You Can, Abagnale finds out that his mother is having an affair with his father’s best friend; in Abagnale’s memoir, no such discovery occurred. Spielberg was adamant upon release that the film’s divorce component was not what attracted him to it, but this detail seems to suggest otherwise, because Spielberg’s mother went through the exact same situation, leaving her husband for a close friend of his. Viewed through this lens, Catch Me If You Can is the most autobiographic Spielberg film, one about a young boy whose flights of fancy protect him from the harsh realities of a grown-up world he’s not prepared to live in.
That’s also the description of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, the story that fascinated Spielberg from a young age. When he finally made a direct adaptation of the story, it was a bomb, possibly the worst film of his career. Hook is a film that collapses under its own weight, burdened with so much empty heartache and overcompensating spectacle that it becomes clear there was no way Spielberg could wrangle all of the moving parts into something worthwhile. He came back swinging, with the iconic one-two punch of Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List coming only two years later, but you could feel Spielberg smarting from the failure. He wouldn’t really return to the territory of abandoned children until the 2000s, with A.I. and Catch Me If You Can coming in quick succession.
But Catch Me If You Can is almost explicitly a Peter Pan film, with its themes of childhood flight and an escape from the realm of adult concerns sounding strikingly like a reprise of the same ideas that sunk Hook. It’s all there in the scenes Abagnale shares with his father when he desperately begs Frank Sr. to “ask him to stop,” or the multiple scenes throughout the film where a lonely Frank Jr. calls the FBI agent who’s tracking him down. Like Peter Pan, Frank doesn’t really want to remain a child. He wants someone to bring him back to earth, someone to hold him in their arms and show him how to grow up.
With the burden of the Peter Pan myth and iconography lifted off of his shoulders, Spielberg is free to tell an affecting story about the same things that attracted him to the tale in the first place. Catch Me If You Can doesn’t have to worry about emulating the many Peter Pan films that preceded Hook. In the place of Captain Hook, it has a delightfully curmudgeonly FBI agent played by Tom Hanks. In the place of Never Never Land, it has the rush of adrenaline that Leo’s Frank gets as he walks down the street in a Pan Am uniform. There’s even a sort of Wendy (played by a wonderful Amy Adams, all pigtails, and big smiles) who pulls Frank into the real world for the briefest of instances. He asks her to run away with him, to join him in his own personal Never Never Land, but like Wendy, she remains tied to the world of the grown-up, and Frank is left on his own once again.
Catch Me If You Can understands something that few real Pan movies do: Peter Pan on his own is not an interesting character. He’s a child, grating and immature, not leading man material. P.J. Hogan’s 2003 adaptation handled itself best when it made Wendy the lead character, with Peter as the freewheeling foil. Catch Me If You Can avoids the problem altogether by grounding Abagnale’s most Peter Pan qualities in DiCaprio’s vulnerability. Where the classic depiction of Pan oozes charm and childish swagger, there’s an underlying sweetness to Abagnale here that keeps him from being a truly effective con man. Even without the movie’s flash-forwards, there’s never any doubt that Frank will be caught, because deep down he wants to be.
When the film finally reaches its most direct Pan reference, with Abagnale returning to his mother only to see through a window that he’s been replaced, everything about Catch Me If You Can snaps into place. This is a con-man movie about the con that leaves you empty, about the empty space that adrenaline won’t fill. Spielberg gets plenty of guff for his happy endings, but Catch Me If You Can has one of his most lightly melancholic. Frank gets a job as an FBI analyst, but on weekends he returns to the skies, chasing the childhood that he had taken from him. He never has the chance to reconcile with his father, who dies offscreen. Here, Abagnale and Spielberg’s lives diverge; Spielberg’s father remains alive to this day, and the two reconciled before Steven shot Catch Me If You Can. In that context, it feels almost like Spielberg getting these feelings out of his system, free to roam the skies at peace.