There are some great libertarian themes in "Catch Me If You Can," the DVD of which was released earlier this month. Leonardo DiCaprio stars in the more-or-less true story of Frank Abagnale, Jr., a kid and master of deception who managed to work as a teacher, a physician, an attorney and prosecutor, and an airline pilot, all before his 18th birthday.
Frank sets out on his life of lies after a family tragedy, draws the attention of the FBI for his financial scams, and eludes agent Carl Hanratty (played by Tom Hanks) for a very long time. Then he cuts his prison term short by agreeing to work for the FBI in its financial crimes division.
Before we get to the libertarianism implied in the film, there is a downside. The film is no more or less complicated that those three sentences above. There are no interesting twists or turns. It is a linear story, and the plot, sequence of action, and ending are known by viewers from the outset. It’s a fine story for an hour-long show or perhaps 100 minutes. But to drag this out to 2 hours and 20 minutes is painful, and excruciatingly so.
There is no such thing as a captive audience, which Steven Spielberg surely knows. The problem is that he is the director and producer, and also owns Dreamworks, which released the film. There must not be anyone at the studio in a position to tell him that this movie needed to be cut by half. So, I cannot entirely recommend this movie for these reasons alone.
That said, the movie is packed with insights concerning the relationship of the individual to the state. For starters, Frank’s family life is shattered by the IRS, which begins to hound his father for tax evasion. There is no indication that his dad did anything other than attempt to keep the money he made. He was found out, and financially ruined, the family house, car, and income all taken by the state. (Throughout the ordeal, Frank’s dad issues idle threats to sue the IRS.) Seeking financial security, Frank’s mom then runs off with Frank’s father’s boss.
Young Frank is overcome with shock that his father, once a corporate bigshot and pillar of the community, is being ground down by the government into the status of a pauper, that his family that was once so stable is no more, that he himself, once a privileged child of wealth, is suddenly thrust into the public-school miasma. Thus begins the cynicism and the perception that life is all a racket anyway, that we live in world in which what we think is true turns out to be a fragile construction. Social and professional standing can be granted or taken away by arbitrary edicts issued by powerful people.
Being 17 years old, he doesn’t adopt a political ideology but there is a tacit force at work in his later decisions to deceive the world: he is setting out to prove that a world so imposed upon by state edict is something of a hoax and hence easy to trick. He wants to do the honors as a way of showing that his father was not so much guilty as unlucky. In this way, he seems to be working to avenge his father’s humiliation at the hands of the government.
The life of deception begins in public school. Treated rudely by the other students on the first day, he decides to affect the manner of a teacher and rules over the French class as a substitute teacher for a full week. Next he tries the same trick to become an airline pilot by merely having the right badge and uniform, then a doctor by merely forging a diploma, and finally an attorney through forgery and various distraction tactics. He finances his operations through check fraud, turning pieces of paper into spendable cash through elaborate financial trickery.
The choice of these professions is significant. They are all professions in which the government exercises an unusual degree of control over who is in and who is out. To understand the difference between these professions and others, imagine a person who attempts to fool people by pretending to be a software designer. Now, if such a fellow designs great software, who is to say that he really isn’t a software designer? He has a marketable skill and markets it. If he doesn’t design useful software, he is fired and that is the end of the story. If he lied in his application, he is a jerk but not a criminal.
In a free market, what a person is is determined by how well a person does. But it’s different in state-controlled professions. You can be a great doctor but without the license to practice, you are guilty of a serious crime. The same is true in aviation and law. It is not enough to be good at what you do. You must jump through hoops held by politicians and bureaucrats. The fraud at the heart of pretending to be a lawyer is not that you are not a good one but that you have not obeyed the regulations that govern who is in and who is out. What’s more, the film doesn’t encourage us to be scandalized by Frank’s deceptions but rather to admire his ability to work within and around the system.
The FBI is after him mainly for his financial crimes. He forges checks and cashes them, being careful to time his activities in such a way that he gets the cash before the hoax is revealed. The film makes no comment on the activities of the Federal Reserve, but when this institution buys bonds from the government, it is merely creating the money out of thin air and pumping it into the economy via its preferred bond dealers. Is what Frank is doing privately really that much more shocking than what the Fed does as a matter of its own daily operations? After all, it was a Fed official who only recently bragged of the institution’s ability to engage in a kind of alchemy.
Eventually, of course, Frank is caught, but the story doesn’t end there. He had become so skilled at forgery that his services at spotting the real from the fake are sought out by the FBI. His prison term is lessened in exchange for his agreement to work for the state. By agreeing to help the government, presto, he goes from world-class criminal to respectable bureaucrat, one who is helping enforce the law. His shift from jailbird to jailer was officially sanctioned and hence not considered deception.
The switch seems to be the mirror image of the same switch in his father, who went from respectable professional to an impoverished member of the working class, also at the stroke of a pen. When the state defines who is rich and who is poor, who is a lawyer and who is not, who is a criminal and who is a criminal catcher, we enter into a world driven by the arbitrariness of power, and that power has real and shocking effects on people’s lives: making and breaking the human will itself.
Spielberg is a specialist at Americana, and with this film he has captured the hidden resentment that many feel toward the regimentation of life that has come with the hegemony of state over society. The distinctions between real and phony, even between criminal and crime-stopper, become blurry and fleeting. Frank Abagnale, Jr., was brilliant at playing a game that the state plays on an ongoing basis.