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**Warning: Spoilers for both book and movie!**
Catch Me If You Can: The True Story of a Real Fake by Frank W. Abagnale and Stan Redding (1980)
Catch Me If You directed by Steven Spielberg (2002)
During the 80’s there was talk of turning the book Catch Me If You Can into a movie starring Dustin Hoffman, however that never came to pass. The book eventually went out of publishing, but then when the film was released in 2002, it was published again and included a short interview with Abagnale, asking his opinion on the movie and such. It has now even been turned into a musical play!
I however, had never watched the movie all the way through. I knew of it, and when it was on TV, I saw bits and pieces. I’m surprised I never watched this in the mid 2000’s, because my family went through a small DiCaprio phase and we were also fans of Tom Hanks. Nonetheless, I watched this for the first time just recently!
With all my previous posts, I would read the book first, then go and watch the movie. This one, we were watching it when I thought to look up if it was based on a book. I saw that there was a book, and started reading it immediately after finishing the movie. Turns out I don’t like doing in that order, I found my notes were more disorganized and made writing this a bit more work as I weeded through what I had. I doubt my readers will notice any difference, but here on out I will stick to reading the book first!
If you are unfamiliar with Frank Abagnale Jr., when he was a teenager, he ran away from home and conned his way into millions of dollars. He posed as a Pan Am pilot, riding for free all across the world while cashing bogus Pan Am pay checks. He then posed as a doctor for a year, after which he then claimed to be a Harvard law graduate. During his travels he also taught on a college campus for a summer.
Posing as a pilot was his most common guise and used it off and on. Don’t forget, he was a teenager! He changed his ID to show him being ten years older. He lived this life, posing in these various careers and cashing checks he created for five years. He was eventually arrested, spent time in prison, after which he started working with banks to help create a system which can’t be hacked as easily. (I say “easily” but he did put a lot of time and work into learning how to perfect a phony check). He also works with the FBI to catch con artists and paperhangers.
Thoughts on the book
The book lists Abagnale as well as Stan Redding as the author, and I read the Redding was the ghost writer. The book is written with a very cocky air, but I don’t know if that is Abagnale, or if Redding chose to write it that way. Either way, it got annoying at times, and the constant talk of all the women he was with also got old. Some of the stories involving women were interesting, and pertinent to the story, but other times I just rolled my eyes.
Having said that, I did enjoy the book for the most part. I’m assuming he exaggerates his exploits a bit, but still, it’s a very impressive story. The only time is dragged was the last chapter, when he is talking about his time in the different prisons.
One thing about the book I really liked was the interview after. He didn’t seem to have that cocky attitude, and was proud of the life he has lived since getting out of prison. In reference to that time of his life being turned into movies and musicals he said, “I’m not totally amazed at the things I did as a kid. I look at it as, I was a kid who ran away,” he says. “I got into a lot of mischief; I was very creative. I did those things, I got caught, I served my time, and I have now been at the FBI for 35 years. I’ve developed technologies that are used all over the world to combat fraud. I’ve been married to my one and only wife for 38 years. I am absolutely amazed, when I look back on my life, at that.”
He met his wife in Houston when he was working under cover for the FBI. He became serious about her, and even though it was against regulations, told her he was an agent working under cover. Similar to an event earlier in his life, when he confessed to a woman about his true identity. Only this time he wasn’t a criminal, and they ended up getting married.
The movie follows the story pretty well overall, the timeline with some things are switched around, and his family background also has some changes.
Leonardo DiCaprio is cast a Frank Abagnale Jr., and if you listened to my Shutter Island book vs movie, you will know I think he is a great actor. Obviously, that’s no revelation, everyone agrees he is amazing. Anyway, he was 28 in this movie, playing a character who was in his teens, who was pretending to be in his late 20’s. Abagnale says in the book that he matured early and at 16 was 6 foot tall. So, passing as a 26 year old at age 16 was actually easy for him to do. There was talk of this role going to Johnny Depp. Depp is a great actor, and it would have been interesting to have seen him in this.
Tom Hanks plays the main FBI agent who is hunting Abagnale, Carl Hanratty. The book is written from Abagnale’s perspective, so we never get an inside look into what the FBI was doing. I don’t talk much about Hanratty in this, because he wasn’t a big part of the book.
The FBI agent in the book was called O’Reilly, but the real guy is Joe Shea. Abagnale used a fake name though because at the time it was written, Shea was still in the FBI. I of course have no complaints with Hanks acting here, and I liked that the movie shows his point of view as well. Spielberg was hesitant to offer the role to Hanks, after James Gandolfini became unavailable due to filming being pushed back. He thought Hanks wouldn’t be interested in a supporting role, but Hanks says that a great role is a great role, no matter how much screen time he gets.
Christopher Walken plays Frank Abagnale Sr., Frank’s dad. Aside from the fact that Walken and DiCaprio look nothing alike, he is great in this role. The dad is not in the book much at all, however for the movie they increased his storyline and there a number of meaningful scenes with Walken and he was even received an Oscar nomination for the role.
Nathalie Baye does a wondeful job in the role of Franks French mom.
Amy Adams has the biggest role of all of Frank’s conquests, she plays Brenda, a young nurse he becomes engaged to. Some of the other notable actresses who have smaller roles are Jennifer Garner, Elizabeth Banks, and Ellen Pompeo.
One of the big reasons I loved the movie, is because of the family storyline. Frank is motivated to get his parents back together and he is searching to recreate that “ideal” family he had once had (or thought he had). In the movie, he came from an affluent family, but then his dad loses his business and soon after his mom starts having an affair. Eventually, he comes home one day to see lawyers in their home because the parents are separating, and he has to choose who he will live with. Rather than make a decision like that, he runs away.
Whereas in the book, for starters, he had three siblings. His dad was well off and was often at the bars socializing (though he wasn’t a heavy drinker) he was also out of town a lot because he was an avid saltwater fisherman. During one of his fishing trips, the mom took the kids and moved into an apartment when Frank was 12. At age 14 the divorce became finalized. Frank was the closest to his dad and chose to live with him while the other three stayed with their mom, who became a dental hygienist. Frank’s dad never stopped trying to get his mom back and would often use Frank as a go between. Both Frank and his mom grew to resent the dad for putting Frank in that position. A year or two after the divorce, the dad lost his business, though Frank never learned why. He said his dad was “as honest as the day is long”, so it wasn’t due to illegal reasons-which is why he loses the shop in the movie.
The movie shows the dad pulling small cons to get things, and Frank notices this. Thus, the movie showing where Frank gets his ideas from, though he of course is a con man on a whole other level than his dad. As I said above though, his dad was a very honest man in real life. He does become a postal worker though, as shown in the movie. Though Frank is still living with him when this career change happens. It depresses Frank to see his dad go from being such a wealthy, prominent figure, to then having to trade in his nice car, and go to be a civil servant while trying to get his wife back, who isn’t interested in getting back together. This situation is what makes Frank decide to run away at age 16.
His mom is also portrayed more negatively in the movie. In real life she never had an affair and didn’t even remarry till about 20 years after the divorce and by then the dad had passed away. It’s interesting to watch this with The Fabeleman’s in mind, where we see that Speilberg’s own mom really had been having an affair.
Speaking of the dad’s death. In the movie this is a big scene because when Frank is being flown home from France, he is saying how he is looking forward to talking to his dad. Then Hanratty tells him that his dad fell and passed away. This leads Abagnale to have a bit of a break down, and he escapes out the plane.
In real life, his dad died while Frank was in prison. It came as a shock and was hard on Frank because he never had a chance to have that heart to heart with his dad and tell him how sorry he was for all the heartache he had caused him. He also wasn’t able to attend the funeral because he was in jail. The book itself never mentions this, it was in the interview at the end of the book where this is talked about.
As the movie shows, he was very close with his dad. Even though he lived with him after the divorce, his mom was still a big part of his life. However, in real life, once he ran away, he doesn’t contact his parents for five years. The first time he talks to them is when he lands in America after having been in prison in France, where he calls them up separately. The movie shows that he keeps in contact with his dad via letters, and even meeting up in person from time to time.
His various identities
Pan Am Co-pilot
In the book, after running away Frank gets various jobs, however he is paid very little. He needs more money so he can afford taking girls out, and he assumes the reason he is paid less is because he is only 16. He has the idea to change his age on his ID to make him ten years older. This doesn’t work and is told it’s not his age, but is paid less because he doesn’t have a high school degree.
In both book and movie Frank sees a pilot walking with stewardess and that scene is what inspires him to ‘become’ a pilot.
The book includes his various clever ways he is able to pull this off. He “pretends” to be a high schooler who is writing about pilots, so he interviews a pilot and gets all sorts of info. He takes the Pan Am logo off of toy planes and uses it on his ID (in the movie he puts it on his check, not his ID), and calls saying he is a pilot who has lost his uniform and is able to get a new one.
In the movie he asks the pilot what it means when someone asks, “what kind of equipment are you working with”. The book however, once he has his pilot’s suit, he spends time just hanging out at airports to get a feel for it. While at an airport bar, a pilot comes up to him and they start chatting. The pilot asks what kind of equipment he is on, Frank, not knowing what that means, says General Electric. The pilot seems annoyed, and Frank excuses himself. On his way out, he sees a stewardess who needs help lifting something. While helping her, he asks what kind of equipment she’s on and she tells him 707s and elaborates a bit. This is how he learns what that means.
The book also explains what deadheading is. He learns that pilots will fly on different airlines for free, to get to a location their airline needs them at. In the movie, it seems like he just gets lucky with being mistaken for the pilot who is deadheading, but in the book it was purposeful. He does his best to avoid hanging out at airports that Pan Am actually flies out of, and successfully travels the world deadheading and cashing his Pan Am checks.
After doing this for a year, one flight he hears pilots talking over the radio, asking questions about him. Once they land, federal agents show up and take him into custody. He claims they have made a mistake and that he doesn’t know what he is being charged with. After talking with him for a while, he is convincing enough, that they decide it must be a mistake and let him go. After this of course, he gets nervous and goes to Atlanta to lay low.
When applying for an apartment in Atlanta, it asks what his occupation is, and he randomly just puts he is a pediatrician and says he is currently on sabbatical. He has plenty of money from Pan Am, so cash isn’t a problem. Things are going well, but soon the landlord introduces him to someone who just moved in below him, who is also a doctor. Initially, Frank wants to go on the run, but decides to stay. Luckily, the doctor doesn’t talk shop, and is actually enjoyable to be around. At one point, the doctor offers to show him the hospital he works at. He starts to visit the hospital frequently, especially for the hospital library so he can read up on what he is claiming to know. He becomes well known amongst the staff and starts dating a nurse named Brenda. Then the guy in charge approaches Frank and asks if he could cover another doctor who has to go out of town for a funeral. He says it’s the midnight to eight shift and will only be for ten days. Frank is hesitant, but the challenge excites him, so he agrees. There are interns on shift, and they do most of the work, he is just there to oversee things.
In the movie, he fakes his PhD and seeks out the job. Brenda is also portrayed as being much younger, whereas in the book she was 30 years old. Though the movie does show that he relies on the interns to do all the work.
In the book Abagnale explains that a big reason he was able to pull off being a doctor, is he had a very flippant attitude and would joke around a lot. Since he was rarely ever serious, when he said something that was inaccurate, nurses and interns just assumed he was joking. Though near the end of his time there, he realized peoples lives were at stake and he got more and more antsy for them to find a permanent replacement. He also was queasy around blood, which the movie accurately shows.
In the book, the ten days ends up extending to 9 months because the original doctor ends up quitting and they take a while to hire someone else. Whereas in the movie, he goes to New Orleans to meet Brenda’s parents and while there says that as well as being a doctor, he is also a lawyer and wants to get back into it. He then stays in New Orleans with Brenda and her parents, and practices law. While staying with Brenda and her parents, he starts to feel he has found that picture perfect family he wants so badly to recreate from his childhood.
In real life, he fakes his law degree, but then studies for four months to pass the bar. In the movie, he studies for only two weeks. The movie has his relationship with Brenda get serious and they are engaged-we’ll get more into those details later. The FBI ends up finding him through his engagement, and he tells Brenda the truth, and escapes before the FBI can get him.
In the book, he leaves where he was practicing law because he says he has a Harvard law degree, and at one point another Harvard law guy moves in. This guy is always wanting to talk everything Harvard, and when Frank doesn’t give satisfactory answers, the guy gets suspicious. Frank decides to get out of Dodge before the guy is able to voice his suspicious to others.
The movie sort of has this, because when he first meets Brenda’s dad, he unkowlingly says he went to the same law school her dad had. He asks some questions about the campus and teachers, and Frank does his best to answer. The dad later approaches him and asks who he really is. Frank says he didn’t actually go to that college, and that he is a man who is in love with his daughter. The dad calls him a romantic and says he is the same way and gives him his blessing to marry Brenda. This is similar to a scene in the book, when he’s a teenager living with his dad, he ends up conning his dad and costing him a lot of money. When the dad approaches Frank, he tells him it’s the girls and that he needs money so he can take them out. The dad understands and doesn’t get mad at Frank.
As I said above, in the book, Brenda is a 30 year old nurse and they date while he’s there, but it doesn’t go beyond that. Later, he is in the bay area and meets a woman named Rosalie whom he starts to truly fall for. She suggests they go meet her parents who live down near LA. She had previously told him she wasn’t going to have sex till she was married, but on the drive down they ended up doing the deed. That, plus the fact that he was meeting her parents, she assumed they would be getting married. When he meets her parents, they start planning the wedding.
Frank is in love with her, and one day he decides to tell her the truth. After he tells her, he says she can go on ahead home and he will meet her there. When he arrives at the house, he sees a cop car out front. Upon seeing it, he drives straight to the airport to get away.
In the movie, Brenda is a young nurse he meets at the hospital. They don’t state her age, but it seems she’s in her late teens/early twenties. They end up getting engaged and go visit her parents where he works with her dad who is a lawyer. The FBI learn about his engagement because he calls Hanratty and tells him. They are then able to find him, and he runs away the night of their engagement party. Before he leaves, he tells Brenda the truth and he makes a plan for her to meet him at the Miami airport in a week.
When the time arrives to meet her, he sees her outside the airport, but also notices FBI there. Brenda, similarly, to Rosalie, had told on him and so the relationship ends.
In the book, he also has a relationship with a French woman who is a stewardess for Air France. Turns out her dad owns a small printing press. Under the guise of working for Pan Am, he pays the dad to print him out checks and things of that sort and the dad never finds out the truth.
In the movie, he goes to France and it seems he has set up shop there himself with a printing press, and don’t show him working with a local printer. This is where Hanratty finally catches him, and the French police arrest him.
Time in Prison
The movie shows him being kept in a French prison cell, where he is suffering from malnutrition, and is living in filth. Hanratty saves him essentially and has him extradited back to the states. But not before Frank tries to run away one more time where prisoners in cells cheer him on.
In the book, he is kept in that French cell for six months. It was a dark, dirty cell just as the movie shows. His hair and nails grew out and he got severely sick. An American comes to check on him a few months in but tells him the French treat all their prisoners this way. If he was treated differently because he was an American, they could get him out. But since every prisoner was kept in a tiny cell and fed barely anything, there was nothing they could do.
After six months, he is taken to Sweden where he is tried and serves time there. Because he broke the law in so many countries, he was going to be bouncing from country to country, getting tried in each place and then serving time. He would be spending the rest of his lift going from prison to prison.
The jail in Sweden was extremely nice and was basically like an apartment. The Swedish authority took pity on him and made arrangements for him to not have to go country to country, and instead go straight to the states.
On the flight back to the states, Frank decides he doesn’t want to spend time in jail, even if it is better than France. As the plane is trafficking, he escapes by lifting the toilet. The escape is shown in the movie, but his reason for escape is because Hanratty tells him his dad has died. They catch him outside his mom’s home with her new husband and he then sentenced to prison. He gets out early in a way, Hanratty arranges it so he serves out the rest of his sentence working for the FBI to catch forgers.
In real life, he is soon caught after escaping the airplane and goes to jail. He ends up getting off on parole after a few years and starts working random minimum wage jobs. One day, he is thinking how he knows more about faking checks and scamming the system than anyone else and that he should put that knowledge to use. He puts together a presentation and talks to a bank about doing a free lecture. As time goes on, his lectures are wanted by banks all over. He soon begins working with banks and the FBI to prevent someone from getting away with what he had.
A great scene in the movie, is when Frank switched schools and ends up teaching his French class for a week, pretending to be a substitute teacher. Unfortunalety, this didn’t happen in real life. During his time on the run, he did spend a summer in Utah where he posed as a TA at Brigham Young University. If you have attended a university, you know that TA’s will teach the classes, so for one summer he did pose as a teacher; a different scenario than the movie shows though. He actually really enjoyed teaching and wished he could have continued. The life of a con man though is a life on the run.
The iconic scene where he gets all the girls from a college to dress as stewardess’s also happens differently in the book. For one, he’s not doing it to get past the FBI. He also goes to the college to recruit girls in September, but the Europe tour with them doesn’t happen till the summer. He highers a professional photographer to take pictures of the girls in the various countries they travel to, because he tells them they are doing photoshoots for Pan Am. He then has the photographer send the photo’s to the real Pan Am; when Pan Am recieves them they are confused but ultimatley Shea gets in contact with these women when they are back in the states and finds out what happens.
The movie had Frank go to France because that was where his parents met. In actuality, he went to France simply because he liked it there. Though while there, he did visit his mothers parents. They didn’t know he was a wanted criminal, and without making it obvious he hadn’t talked to his parents in years, he was able to ask them subtle questions as a way to see how his family was doing.
Book or Movie?
The biggest change I think the movie made, was that Frank was driven by the desire to get his parents together, and to find that ideal family again. He calls Hanratty three times, always on Christmas, and says how he wants to stop running. This also wasn’t the case in the book. There were times when Frank was tired of running, but he never had a personal relationship with an FBI agent and he never offered himself up.
I like the changes the movie made. I loved watching the relationship between him and Hanratty. Even though they were trying to beat each other, they had a respect for each other. In real life, he and the real agent have stayed in contact, though I do know how close they are.
In real life Frank did want his parents back together, and if it hadn’t been for the divorce, he wouldn’t have run away and done all this. I liked how the movie emphasized this and made it a bigger driving force for him.
This is one where I would recommend the movie over the book. There are times when I like the artistic liberties Hollywood takes. The book kept my interest and was well written overall, but if you want a more touching story, go with the movie.
In March of 2023 there was an article in the New York Post that said Abagnale lied about the majority of what was told in his book. “He did forge checks, masquerade as pilots, sit in a few jump seats, escape a jailhouse and go to prison in Europe…Abagnale never pretended to be a professor at Brigham Young or a physician in Georgia. He never posed as a lawyer in the Baton Rouge attorney general’s office.” He seems to blame it on the ghost writer Stan Redding saying he, “[Redding] overdramatized and exaggerated some of the story … He always reminded me that he was just telling a story and not writing my biography,”
The article shares an interview of another woman, Paula Campbell, who was a flight attendant that Abagnale was interested in and he was very persistant before she said yes to dating him and when he met her family they all fell in love with him. He then went on to steal from the family, and of course when he disappeared and the truth came out, they felt betrayed and manipulated. Campbell says, “He said he never hurt little people, just went after big businesses. That’s the one that sticks in my craw. My mama’s heart was broken.”
BYU, the college he claims to have taught at, also says there is not record of him or anyone like him. They show this letter, saying through the years multiple people have written to verify this but the college has never been able to confirm. This goes for some of his other lies as well. There were people even in the 70’s and 80’s who weren’t buying his story, but lack of internet caused these skeptics to be isolated to their local community and it didn’t become a nationwide thing the way it can now thanks to the internet.
He still was a conman, just not the extent he claimed. So while I said the movie embellished the facts to make for a better story, sound like Abagnale embellished as well. Lying about all of this, then going on to use this story to further his career, sell a book, then turn his book into a movie and plays, seems like the ultimate long con.