The late Pauline Kael once wrote of Steven Spielberg, "I can't tell if he has any mind, or even a strong personality, but then a lot of good moviemakers have got by without being profound." She continued, "If there's such a thing about movie sense...Spielberg really has it. But he may be so full of it that he doesn't have much else."
This assessment appeared in Kael's review of Sugarland Express, Spielberg's 1974 debut film. Twenty-eight years later, it remains the last word on the man who would remake Hollywood in his own image. Kael's appreciative ambivalence about Sugarland Express and its creator also provides the best way to understand the fleeting beauty of Spielberg's new film, Catch Me If You Can.
The light, innocent touch Spielberg showed as a 26-year-old is still with him. Many passages are so pleasurable and off-handedly entertaining that it's possible to forgive him his seminal role in creating the bigger, dumber and louder blockbuster, a phenomenon that began with Jaws--no matter how good a film that originally was.
But Catch Me If You Can is also finally, fatally freighted with Spielberg's apparently reflexive need to turn every story he touches into a schmaltzy, redemptive fable uniting childless parents with parent-less children.
This film, allegedly based on a true story, concerns a teenager named Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio) who leaves home at sixteen to become a con artist. Over a few short years, Abagnale manages to pass himself off as an airline pilot, an emergency room physician and an assistant prosecutor.
Set in the 1960s, the film's brightly colored production design is a triumph. But unlike the carefully arranged décor of recent, similarly-designed films like Auto-Focus and Far From Heaven, Spielberg's mise en scene looks lived in, and not like a photo from a vintage issue of Architecture Digest. If Julianne Moore had sneezed once in Far From Heaven, half of the set would have blown away.
Spielberg's faultless strategy is to focus on one or two design elements at a time, as in the glorious scene in which DiCaprio struts down a white hospital corridor, wearing white highwaters and an orange and white double-breasted, short-sleeved cardigan sweater.
In this and many other scenes, DiCaprio is in fine form. In a remarkable recovery from his dull, thuggish mien in Gangs of New York, once again he's a slim, fresh-faced charmer. It's a good thing, since this may be his only effective guise.
After a prologue set in 1969, we meet him six years earlier, in New Rochelle, NY where his father (Christopher Walken) is being feted by the local Rotary Club. It's a proud moment for Frank, Sr., his French wife, Paula (Nathalie Baye), and their teenaged son, who applauds wildly after his father's maudlin speech.
It's quickly revealed, however, that the Abagnale fortunes are frequently unstable--the elder Frank is himself a minor con artist with a long history of failed business dealings. Still, young Frank adores him, and a wonderful scene shows the family reenacting, for the millionth time, how the father courted the mother at a dance in a French village during the war. Dancing in the living room ensues, but Spielberg artfully and gently undermines the gorgeous tableau with bit of business concerning wine spilled on the carpet.
Inevitably, financial disaster strikes the family, and young Frank is forced to transfer to a tough public high school. On his first day, he walks into his French class already a marked man by the bullies. There's no teacher, and the room is unruly and frightening. Suddenly, without a moment's hesitation, Frank sternly announces to the class that he is their substitute teacher. He gets away with it for a week, even planning a field trip for them.
Shortly after this lark, young Frank's beloved parents split, and the traumatized son runs away. In a beguiling series of scenes, we see Frank emerge as a full-blown, sophisticated con artist. He adapts to his surroundings with no self-consciousness--like a skillful improv actor able to walk into a scene and instantly create a character from the materials at hand. Of course, Frank is occasionally, amusingly hindered by his ignorance of details, such as where the "jump seat" is located in a plane's cockpit.
So far, so poignant and wonderful. But this floating éclair of a film is dragged down by the presence of FBI agent Carl Hanratty, a nerdy bank fraud specialist who dedicates himself to bringing Frank to justice. Thus the film grinds into a cat and mouse game, with Hanratty and his men huddling over tables and telephones, plotting how to catch Frank.
Hanratty is established as a lonely man, estranged from his wife and daughter. His colleagues don't take him seriously, and he sees his quest for Frank as his chance to make a big collar in the field. The fact that he's alone in his office on Christmas Eve tells us everything we need to know about him.
All too predictably, Hanratty develops a fatherly concern for Frank, and sees his mission as one of salvation. Once a year, always around Christmas, Hanratty reaches Frank by telephone. (Every important moment in this film occurs around Christmas. Why not stage one of these "symbolic" scenes during, say, Hanukkah?)
This Javert is played by Tom Hanks, whom it seems to be our patriotic duty to love. Though his Everydad persona has been a welcome feature in many movies, it's not clear why he has to be in this one. Leo's doing just fine without him: there's plenty of material in Frank's scenes with his fellow pilots, doctors and lawyers, as well as his lovers and parents, to sustain this film.
Because Spielberg's so obsessed with the filial relationship, all the others are given short shrift. Of particular interest, Frank hooks up with a tremulous, not very bright nurse named Brenda (Amy Adams), midway through his stint as a physician.
Just before they sleep together, she tearfully confesses that she's not a virgin. Worse, she'd had an abortion and been banished from her upstanding Louisiana family as a result. Frank offers his love anyway, and they become engaged.
Unfortunately, what could have been a tender portrait of two childlike, outcast lovers is undercut by Spielberg's presentation of Brenda as a hopeless imbecile. Even so, this scene is strikingly reminiscent of Sugarland Express, a film about two waifish outlaws on the run in Texas.
Later, there's a sly sequence in which Brenda brings Frank home to meet Daddy (played by a fulsome Martin Sheen), who mistakes an attempted confession by Frank for a rhetorically brilliant declaration of love for his daughter. Although the whole interlude with Brenda is entertaining enough, it's frustrating when she gets ditched at the close of the second act. These scenes suggest a movie in which the poor girl, blossoming under Frank's attention, must consider the possibility that, even if he has no fixed identity, his love is still sincere.
However, Spielberg sees Frank's pathology as something to cure, not to explore. The film's closing titles happily inform us that Frank now works on the right side of the law, "earning millions from Fortune 500 companies" for his invaluable insights into bank fraud.
Maybe this is really true, but psychologists tell us that con artists are notoriously recidivist. Spielberg would have us believe that the benign attention of Tom Hanks is all it takes for DiCaprio's character to make a full recovery. By way of contrast, in the closing titles of Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese had the decency to tell us that Henry Hill, once inside the witness protection program, proceeded to use his cover to commit more crimes.
But there are no complicated, unhappy or ironic endings in Steven Spielberg's world. His mawkish heart doesn't ruin Catch Me If You Can--too much of it is too good--but it does diminish it.
Based on a true story from the 1930s, the new Australian film Rabbit-Proof Fence concerns three native, Aborigine girls who are kidnapped by official government sanction. The girls are "half-caste"--that is, half-white--and for that crime they will be indoctrinated in the ways of white folks, never to rejoin their families.
At the time, the Australian government was in thrall to the theories of eugenics that were in vogue everywhere in the world, most disastrously in Germany. Accordingly, a bureaucrat appointed as "guardian" of the native children oversaw a government program to systematically remove all half-castes from their families. The children were then educated in the white Christian tradition and immersed in white society.
The goal was to have them "breed" with whites, thus further diluting their aboriginal origins. In the film, their guardian uses slides to demonstrate to a group of society ladies how aboriginal racial characteristics can be eliminated after only three generations of "mulattos," "quadroons" and "octoroons." Remarkably, Australia's kidnapping and reeducation program persisted until 1971.
The story begins with an ironic scene in which the three young girls are out hunting lizards with their mothers. Molly, the oldest, is introduced as the film's heroine, as her mother points to a falcon circling in the sky, telling her that the bird will protect her from danger. But for the armed white men lurking on horseback nearby, this could be a sentimental depiction of native life.
Soon enough we realize, though, that these aboriginals live entirely at the pleasure of the white government, when the girls are forcibly removed to a camp 1,200 miles to the north, where they join several dozen other adolescent internees. A series of brief scenes demonstrates how they are stripped of their native identity and forced into mimicry of the film's whites, who are rather excessively caricatured.
When the girls escape, the rest of the film follows their journey home, following the fence of the title--a barricade stretched across the Outback to contain the country's most troublesome non-human inhabitants.
They do not leave, however, without being followed. Their chief pursuer is Moodoo, a middle-aged aborigine who's the official security guard and fugitive tracker for the reeducation camp. Although Moodoo is generally presented as an Uncle Tom, there's a delightful moment when he realizes he's been once again outfoxed by the clever girls. After a long, thoughtful pause, the faintest trace of a smile crosses his face.
Although there's an unavoidably anti-climactic feel to the film's second half, the girls have a couple of surprising encounters with whites and natives along the way. Moreover, cinematographer Christopher Doyle's expressionistic, hallucinatory visions of the Outback are a warm treat for winter eyes.
Kenneth Branagh gives a self-abnegating, thankless performance as the guardian, Mr. Neville. Aboriginal non-actors play the three girls well. As Molly, the group's leader, Everlyn Sampi has the serene, beautiful countenance of a movie star, and she carries herself like a born leader. However, it's a little disquieting to learn that prior to being "discovered" for this film, Sampi had never seen a movie. One wonders if director Philip Noyce should have confined his search for actors to Australia's assimilated natives.
Interestingly, David Gulpilil, the actor who plays Moodoo, was featured in the 1971 Nicholas Roeg film Walkabout, as a young native who rescues two white teenagers stranded in the Outback. With its hothouse photography and Mandingo-style eroticism, Walkabout was a counterculture hit at the time. But in the face of Rabbit-Proof Fence, it now seems as retrograde as the government's social engineering policies that were coming to a close at about the same time.