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Was the movie that upended Steven Spielberg’s formula also his most autobiographical?

Editor’s Note: The director Steven Spielberg turns 75 on Dec. 18. To mark that momentous occasion, the Forward is running a series of essays reassessing his films. Read more of our “Spielberg at 75” series here.

Audiences love Steven Spielberg for the same reason many cinephiles scorn him: his epic, unflagging earnestness.

Critics and fellow filmmakers have found less flattering labels for this signature trait, among them “childish,” “simplistic,” even “reactionary.” Given the breadth of Spielberg’s interests, these jibes hardly seem fair. Few among us could watch the technically boggling, emotionally grueling opening of “Saving Private Ryan” and muse, “Now, there’s some childish filmmaking right there.” And It’s difficult to categorize, or dismiss, a body of work that includes “The Color Purple,” “War of the Worlds,” “Schindler’s List,” and the “Indiana Jones” franchise.

Too optimistic and naïve for comparison with Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola but too historically and politically ambitious to party with George Lucas, Spielberg is a man without a cinematic country.

And the snobs have one thing right: Spielberg makes movies about good guys and bad guys, full stop. (There’s a reason why Spielberg has made so many films about World War II and none about Vietnam.) His heroes may be tortured, his villains conflicted, but the viewer is never confused as to which is which.

That is, almost never. With the 2002 crime caper “Catch Me If You Can,” Spielberg offers an arch, screwball departure from his typical, right-headed storytelling. The tale of a teenage con artist that harks back to Frank Capra’s litanies of pretenders and charming cheats, “Catch Me If You Can” offers irony instead of earnestness. Instead of showing it is good to be good, the film concedes it is sometimes all right to be a bit naughty.

By asking audiences to identify with an unabashed crook instead of a salt-of-the-earth hero, Spielberg pokes ample fun at his own earnestness — even as, by the film’s end, the director-auteur ultimately sides with the traditional forces of justice and order.

At the movie’s outset, 16-year-old Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio) runs away from home in the wake of his parents’ divorce. Inspired by his seedy, IRS-cheating father (Christopher Walken), he supports himself through confidence scams, moonlighting first as a Pan Am pilot, then as a doctor and a lawyer. As Frank’s schemes become more daring, he attracts the attention of Tom Hanratty (Tom Hanks), an FBI agent determined to track him down and hold him accountable.

Frank is caught between the disciplinarian father figure he needs and the flawed parent who raised him, and his lies inevitably lead to moral gray areas. Most of his crimes are victimless, such that, even while masquerading as a doctor, he doesn’t kill any patients. (Yes, this does strain credulity.) And it’s hard to blame him for stealing from faceless, impersonal corporate America, especially when he does so with such panache.

Instead, it’s Frank’s treatment of the women he woos under false pretenses that feels the most sordid. Frank’s mistreatment of secretaries, flight attendants, and call girls marks him as a cool guy, when, in fact, he is just a lost boy in an impeccably tailored suit.

This is where Hanratty comes in, and not just because of the unavoidable parallels to Hanks’ 1988 film “Big.” Hanks is a go-to leading man for Spielberg, so it’s tempting to read his character as a surrogate for the filmmaker. That’s not the case here. Hanratty is the Elmer Fudd to Frank Abagnale’s Bugs Bunny: dour where Frank is flip, stable where Frank is erratic. The leads of “Catch Me If You Can” are opposites and extremes, neither quite embodying an ideal of postwar manhood. Abagnale is hilarious but ultimately unethical, while Hanratty is basically Inspector Javert in “Mad Men” garb.

A typical Spielberg film would prod the audience to sympathize with Hanratty, but this one puts Frank on the archetypal hero’s journey. Even more strikingly, the film establishes emotional parallels between them: both men are fundamentally lonely, with only the other to call on Christmas. Here, Spielberg’s black-and-white methods yield to a rich emotional ambiguity. If adolescent con-artistry and upright organizational manhood lead you to the same place, what exactly is the director preaching to America’s youth?

As a result of this moral indeterminacy, “Catch Me If You Can” toggles between daffiness and depression, capturing the highs and lows that link the lives of con men and workaholic federal agents. To that end, one of the most upbeat sequences in the film follows on one of the bleakest. After Frank comes clean to his fiancée (Amy Adams) about his true identity, she nearly succeeds in turning him in to the feds. Alone again, having come so close to the love and settled domesticity he craves, Frank dons his pilot’s cap once more.

The Miami airport is swarmed with law enforcement, ready to nab him. Frank only escapes by ensconcing himself in a crowd of sexy flight attendants he himself has recruited; he slips by a fleet of agents too distracted by the sight of these beautiful women to notice him hiding in their midst. To add some theatrical flair to his victory, Frank even leaves a limo driver at the pick-up area, holding a sign up for Hanratty.

This joyous sequence feels like a happy ending. But (spoiler alert) it isn’t. By the film’s final moments, Abagnale is on the straight-and-narrow — a world totally drained of color, imagination, and play. When Frank stares longingly at a pilot’s costume in a thrift store window, we taste the sadness of his reformed, theoretically better new life. Unlike other, more bittersweet coming-of-age moments in Spielberg’s oeuvre — Elliott’s farewell to his alien buddy in “E.T.” springs to mind — this is a moment of unvarnished loss. No swelling violins or beautiful cinematography can fix what ails young Frank.

The film’s final moments recall the gangster flicks of Hollywood’s Golden Age, which were required by the Hays Code to conclude with a “crime doesn’t pay” moral, however clunky.

But while crime may not profit, well-crafted illusion kills at the box office. To that end, in the third act of the film, Hanratty badgers Abagnale into explaining how he managed to pass the Louisiana State bar exam, one of the only scams the FBI cannot solve. How did he cheat? What weakness in the examination process did he exploit? Finally, Abagnale reveals his secret: he studied for two weeks. Putting on a show is hard work, and the best storytellers do their homework.

So, while “Catch Me If You Can” initially seems like a departure for Spielberg, we may also see it as an autobiographical disclosure. After all, what’s the difference between the con artist who pockets millions and the most commercially successful film director of all time? Spielberg loves stories of decent men doing their best. But he himself is an entertainer and a magician, known for his dinosaur animatronics and his less-than-flawless shark robotry. Of all Spielberg’s heroes, Frank Abagnale might be his closest analogue.

The main difference between the two is that, unlike Abagnale’s inevitable surrender, Spielberg soldiers on, having rendered his gift for deception into a respectable day job. And audiences? Now, as ever, we peer into the showman’s bag of tricks, hearts in our throats, desperate to come along for the ride.

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