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Spielberg Out of the Spotlight: “Catch Me If You Can”/”The Terminal”

by on October 30, 2012
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In the weeks leading up to the November 16 release of the much-hyped “Lincoln,” Sam Watermeier will look back at director Steven Spielberg’s less popular films, his work outside the spotlight.

After telling two of his darkest stories about the future, Spielberg returned to the real world to tell two of the breeziest.

What may have initially seemed like artistic missteps turned out to be perfect reflections of their lead characters’ actions. Like “Catch Me If You Can’s” Frank Abagnale and “The Terminal’s” Victor Navorsky, Spielberg fled from heavy drama and defiantly stayed put in a world of little hefty consequence. However, that is not to say the films are without conflict.

Spielberg established a new identity with these films about men trying to find their own.

Based on a true story, “Catch Me If You Can” follows Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio), a ’60s youth who runs away from home on the heels of his parents’ divorce, resulting in a life of impersonation and bank fraud.

In some ways, “The Terminal” is a similar tale — one of a man who can’t return to his ruined home. He finds himself stranded in what Abagnale finds his ticket to freedom and adventure — the airport. Spielberg stays with Victor as he waits for citizenship from a country under coup.

Both films are smaller in scale than what we’re used to seeing from Spielberg. However, he infuses them with the same panache, crafting suspenseful set pieces out of otherwise ordinary situations. For instance, take the scene in “The Terminal” wherein Victor realizes he can return carts in exchange for quarters to buy food.

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Carried by John Williams’ slyly bouncy score, the scene moves at a quietly exhilarating pace, thus evoking Victor’s feeling of discovery. It’s arguably the clearest example of what Spielberg does best — creating magic within the mundane.

For a film that takes place in one location, “The Terminal” has a diverse range. Through Spielberg’s eyes, JFK Airport is at once vast and suffocating. Like “Catch Me If You Can,” it depicts the airport as both a gateway to freedom and a kind of limbo.

In “Catch Me If You Can,” the lead character sees the consequences of breaching that gate. Ironically, his continued indulgence in fantasy and adventure helps him when he’s faced with harsh reality. Take this scene in which he gets out of a legal bind by pretending to be a Secret Service agent named Barry Allen — as in The Flash’s alter ego.

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Victor, too, takes refuge in fantasy to escape the reality of his imprisonment. At one point, he creates a makeshift romantic restaurant in the airport.

In these regards, the films are metaphors for Spielberg’s escapist endeavors. And in that sense, they are more personal than most critics thought.

These movies won’t be remembered as well as Spielberg’s previous work, sadly because they stand as departures from it.

Considering they are character studies, it would be morally remiss not to mention the films’ performances. As Abagnale, DiCaprio strikes a seamless balance between youthful exuberance and fear while Hanks embodies Capra-esque optimism as Victor. Also worth noting in “The Terminal” is Stanley Tucci, who evokes empathy and menace as airport security chief Frank Dixon. He manages to keep this menace grounded in reality and masterfully understated even in sinister, theatrical confrontations like this one:

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Of course, it would be difficult to soil sharp, fun dialogue like this:

“You go to war with me, and you go to war with the United States of America. Then you will know when that fight is over why Krakozhians wait in line for cheap toilet paper while Uncle Sam wipes his ass with Charmin two-ply.”

The dialogue in “Catch Me If You Can” is equally cool and magnetic. “You know why the Yankees always win?” Abagnale asks. “Because the other teams can’t stop staring at their pin-stripes.” Of course, this kind of velvety dialogue is fitting for these films that are essentially about con men.

All in all, both films are gems, proving that even Spielberg’s “minor work” is better than the major work of many filmmakers.

“Catch Me If You Can:” 4.5 Yaps
“The Terminal:” 4 Yaps

Next week, I’ll discuss Spielberg’s underrated masterpiece, “Munich.”