In Catch Me If You Can, selections of Frank Abagnale’s fascinating life were captured onscreen, but there were a few changes made to his story. The movie follows Abagnale’s life of crime from a teenager to a young adult, concluding when he is finally able to use his considerable talents counterfeiting checks to aid the FBI. It is based very tightly on the 1980 book by Stan Redding who wrote Catch Me If You Can following interviews with Abagnale, but there are some questions as to the book’s accuracy due to Redding’s exaggerations and dramatizations. Abagnale was not consulted on the film, so he wasn’t able to confirm which parts of the book were based on reality, or hyperbole.
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The movie, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, tells the story of an unusual young man who runs away from home at the tender age of sixteen to start a life as a con artist. He begins with small counterfeit checks to travel and stay in hotels, and soon goes on to long cons like passing himself off as a pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer. When he is finally caught and extradited back to the United States to stand trial, he escapes, sticking him with further charges, but he is finally rounded up and spends four years in prison before being released to work as a consultant for the FBI. Most of the major plot points in the film are factual, illustrating the key moments that made up Abagnale’s personal history.
The movie’s tagline, “The true story of a real fake,” captures the essence of the thrilling caper. In a 2003 interview for the book Catch Me If You Can, Abagnale answered the question of veracity, saying that the film is 80% accurate, and in his foreword for the screenplay of the film, he amended his statement, calling the film 90% accurate, presenting a narrative that stayed true to how things really were. Nevertheless, there were details that didn’t make it into the film or were altered to serve either character or story.
“Two little mice fell into a bucket of cream,” Frank Abagnale Sr. recites. “The first mouse gave up and drowned. The second mouse just wouldn’t quit. He struggled so hard that eventually he churned that cream into butter and crawled out.” In the film, Abagnale learns fortitude from his father. He also learns how to charm and manipulate with a little tale or bent truth from Christopher Walken’s character, though in real life, his father was an honest man who did not approve of his son’s shoplifting and other early scams. In the film, it is due to his parent’s divorce that the teenager runs away from home and explores illegal methods for moving large amounts of money. It is true that the divorce deeply affected Abagnale, partially inspiring his flight and crime spree, but Abagnale lived with his single father for a long while before absconding from home. Some minor details of the divorce were changed, such as Abagnale’s mother remarrying and having another child. While Abagnale was not an only child as the movie portrays, his mother did not remarry.
Catch Me If You Can returns to Abagnale Sr. several times, showing Jr.’s correspondence with him and meeting with him while posing as a pilot and later a doctor. In reality, Abagnale actually never saw his father again after running away from home, nor did Abagnale Sr. attempt to guard his son’s secret. In truth, when Abagnale Jr. got up to some monetary shenanigans in his teen years involving his father’s credit cards, his father tried to enroll him in a school for “wayward boys,” which is another detail that does not make it into the film, even though it appears that this was the final straw for the young boy, and the true reason he ultimately ran away. Abagnale did say that he was pleased with Steven Spielberg’s choice to portray his father in a positive light, which was true to life. The film has Abagnale Sr. acting as a touchstone for his son, informing all of his choices and inspiring his will to keep pushing and trying, struggling in the cream until, like the little mouse, he could climb back out again. This served a higher purpose for the film, and Abagnale did not object to the change.
Romances and Engagement
The film portrays Abagnale having many dalliances with women, even falling in love with a candy striper played by Amy Adams. It was these many flirtations that ended up getting him caught, as a flight attendant with whom he’d had an affair spotted him in France and reported him to police. His romance with a young woman, named Brenda Strong in the book as well as the film, was almost the end of his career. He fell in love with her and confessed his crimes to her, hoping to start a life as her husband. Their relationship ended when she attempted to turn him in. The film is mostly accurate in its portrayal of their romance and breakup, as he did meet her when he was pretending to be a doctor running a hospital. His confession to her, however, came about in a different way than it did in the film, and wasn’t a last-minute gut-spilling on his way out of a window. Of all his cons, being a doctor terrified him the most because he thought he might put others in danger. On one occasion, there was a close call because he failed to comprehend what the phrase “blue baby” meant. He resolved to resign as a doctor, making some excuse, but luckily a qualified person showed up to take over for him. He knew the FBI was closing in, so he chose to come clean in an effort to keep Brenda while changing careers.
Part of Abagnale’s continued motivation for con artistry was his taste for women. Hot checks and glamorous hotel rooms garnered a lot of flirtatious attention for him, but it was this attention that would ultimately be his undoing. In the film, a junior detective who interviewed his mother remembered the French town, Montrichard, where she was raised, and it leads Hanratty to his hiding place, eliminating the story of the flight attendant and Abagnale’s fatal flaw.
Frank Abagnale The Professor
Abagnale’s fourth phony career was left out of the movie, though it was illustrated a little when he poses as a teacher for his French class. For one summer semester, Abagnale took on the role of a sociology professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He was well-liked by his students, who found him affable and intelligent. He pulled it off by reading one chapter ahead of them every week, which some pupils found a little odd. BYU advertised in the paper for a sociology professor, Abagnale forged a transcript from Columbia University, and the prestigious university took him on.
Carri Jenkins of BYU said in 2003 that she and the staff found no record of his tenure at the school, despite Abagnale’s claims that he taught a ninety-minute course to a total of 141 students. Abagnale said that he couldn’t remember which alias he used while working there, but despite Redding’s penchant to take certain liberties with his story in the book based on his life, he was indeed on the campus during his spree. Whether he was a professor or a mere teacher’s aid is up for debate, and it is possible that were he the latter, there would be no record of his stint teaching sociology.
In one of the movie’s most thrilling scenes, Abagnale sits with his captor on an airplane on the way to meet his fate in the United States. He learns that his beloved father is dead, and he becomes overwhelmed with emotion, saying he feels sick and insisting on going to the lavatory. Hanratty, played by Tom Hanks, waits for him outside, but once the plane is landing it is clear that Abagnale is not coming out. Hanratty busts in the door only to find an empty room with a few screws on the floor, leaving Tom Hanks’ character outsmarted.
In reality, it would be impossible for Abagnale to have escaped through the toilet. The space is very well sealed up, and the person attempting it would either have to be very tiny or have a dislocated collarbone. In truth, Abagnale escaped through the kitchen gallery where food comes on and off the plane, but Redding invented the bathroom detail for the book. Abagnale knew his way around planes fairly well due to his time spent pretending to be a pilot, so he would have known that escape through the toilet was impossible. In 1971, Frank escaped once more, attempting to flee to Brazil. It was three years after that that Abagnale brokered a deal with the FBI that earned him his freedom in exchange for advising the Bureau on how to further protect people and companies from fraud, as was accurately portrayed in Catch Me If You Can.
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