Retro review: Catch Me If You Can — how does the Spielberg movie hold up?

Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can
Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can (Image credit: DreamWorks/Amblin/Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo)

Over 49 years, Steven Spielberg has made 33 feature films, many of them considered to be some of the best ever made — Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET, Schindler's List, Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan and more. With that kind of resume, it's easy for a movie like Catch Me If You Can to fall under the radar.

The movie has an impressive lineup, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Amy Adams, Martin Sheen and more. But as Catch Me If You Can turns 20, its status among the Spielberg pantheon is one that may not instantly come to mind. But should it?

Two decades after its release, and with Spielberg's latest movie The Fabelmans now out, which chronicles his youth as an aspiring filmmaker, we take a look back at Catch Me If You Can and whether we should be giving it more credit.

What is Catch Me If You Can about?

Catch Me If You Can is based on the story of Frank Abagnale Jr., a teenager who becomes a con man forging checks and taking on different personas as an airline pilot, a doctor, lawyer and more. He is pursued by a determined FBI agent, Carl Hanratty, ultimately caught and convicted, then, with the help of Hanratty, turns over a new leaf and works with the FBI to catch other criminals.

Frank Abagnale Jr. is a real person, whose book, Catch Me If You Can: The True Story of a Real Fake (co-authored by Stan Redding), was the basis for the movie. The book and the movie showcase how Abagnale skillfully forged checks and wound up stealing $2.5 million before the age of 21. However, in recent years, there have been investigations into how accurate Abagnale's accounts are.

The legacy of Catch Me If You Can

Catch Me If You Can was a highly anticipated movie when it came out. Spielberg was and is, of course, Spielberg, but he was reuniting with his Saving Private Ryan co-star Hanks and working for the first time (and thus far only time) with Leonardo DiCaprio. Critics and audiences responded — the movie is "Certified Fresh" on Rotten Tomatoes with a score of 96% and it earned $352 million worldwide throughout its run in movie theaters.

However, when it came to awards, Catch Me If You Can fell short. It earned two Oscar nominations, one for Christopher Walken as Best Supporting Actor and one for John Williams' score. But no Best Picture or Best Director noms for Spielberg.

We'd be remiss not to mention that Catch Me If You Can is an example of what we'll call "Steven Spielberg's double dip years." Catch Me If You Can was his second movie of 2002, along with the sci-fi movie Minority Report. The director has done that five other times in his career: 1989 (The Last Crusade and Always), 1993 (Jurassic Park and Schindler's List), 1997 (Jurassic Park: The Lost World and Amistad), 2005 (War of the Worlds and Munich) and 2011 (The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse).

While it often takes a back seat to Spielberg's more blockbuster type fare, there are many who still bang the drum for it. Rolling Stone ranks it as Spielberg's fourth best movie, The Guardian just outside of the top 10 and you'll find many other critics' and movie site lists have a similar feeling toward the movie. 

Catch Me If You Can's most iconic moment

Honestly, there are a few that come to mind pretty quickly for us: the Christmas phone calls between Hanks' Hanratty and DiCaprio's Frank are all great; just about any scene with Christopher Walken; and Hanratty's not-safe-for-work joke. 

But if we're going to pick one, it has to be Frank's evasion of the FBI at the Miami airport with the help of some stewardesses. With Hanratty quickly closing in on him, Frank pulls out his charms and his pilot's uniform once again to make sure he can get out of the country. All to the tune of Frank Sinatra’s "Come Fly With Me." Watch it right here: 

Does Catch Me If You Can hold up?

As we mentioned, many who write on movies think Catch Me If You Can belongs in Spielberg's upper echelon and while perhaps the more click-baity thing to do would to be contrarian and say that Catch Me If You Can doesn't hold up and is actually one of Spielberg's lesser works, we just can't.

Catch Me If You Can may not be the type of spectacle that Spielberg is known for with movies like Jaws, the Indiana Jones franchise or Jurassic Park, but the movie sees all involved at the top of their games. Spielberg balances the adventure of a young man taking the world by storm as he skillfully forges new identities, the movie's humor as well as the deeper drama of Frank being a lost soul, only really knowing how to run.

DiCaprio is great, Tom Hanks is as solid as ever and Christopher Walken gives a phenomenal performance as Frank Abagnale Sr. Plus, Catch Me If You Can features another brilliant score from John Williams; maybe not as iconic as Star Wars or Indiana Jones, but one you can easily pick out and think of three to four scenes from the movie.

Twenty years later and Catch Me If You Can remains an enjoyable watch from a master filmmaker.

Read our previous Retro Review for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Michael Balderston

Michael Balderston is a DC-based entertainment and assistant managing editor for What to Watch, who has previously written about the TV and movies with TV Technology, Awards Circuit and regional publications. Spending most of his time watching new movies at the theater or classics on TCM, some of Michael's favorite movies include Casablanca, Moulin Rouge!, Silence of the Lambs, Children of Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Star Wars. On the TV side he enjoys Only Murders in the Building, Yellowstone, The Boys, Game of Thrones and is always up for a Seinfeld rerun. Follow on Letterboxd.