Catching on to Catch Me If You Can by Madeline Miller

Meet Frank Abagnale Jr., the con artist who tricked the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Based on a true story, Catch Me If You Can (2002, Dir. Steven Spielberg) follows Frank while he is still a teenager in the 1960s as he runs away from his divorcing parents, assuming different identities along the way. Through the application of rational choice crime theory, Frank’s actions can be understood as the reasonable conclusion of cost-benefit analysis.

Rational choice criminology theory describes “the ideal citizen as someone who engages in a cost-benefit calculation before deciding to engage in or avoid criminal behavior, a person capable of reasoned judgment, deliberation and a clear understanding of the law” (Rafter and Brown, 16). Based on this definition the hard working, intelligent, and clean-cut young Frank appears to be the ideal citizen who engages with crime as a way of finding a solution. Such depictions of criminal understanding “as the result of individual choice… deny the role in crime causation of poverty, race, class, and gender” (Rafter and Brown, 17). These depictions can also be understood through the concept of neoliberalism, which focuses on the individual rather than systemic issues that may cause certain reactions. While Frank seems aware of the changes that his family undergoes to better accommodate their current financial situation, such as moving to a smaller home and having him transfer to a public school, Catch Me If You Can’s portrayal of wealth as transient seems to point to social class as low on the list of the film’s priorities, serving as an undercurrent rather than a driving force. Instead Frank’s father’s choice to commit fraud is cited as the original catalyst that starts this chain of events- the inspiration for Frank Jr.’s own criminal actions undertaken in pursuit of wealth as a means of establishing security both in the family home and society.

Prior to engaging in close scene analysis, I would like to note that Catch Me If You Can skips between time, location, and various characters’ perspectives. For the purpose of this analysis, Frank Jr.’s perspective is the major focus. Not all scenes are discussed in sequential order. The film is being used as a demonstration of rational choice crime theory. While my hope is that anyone could understand the argument I make, actually having seen the film prior to reading this piece may help to provide context to some of the referenced scenes. Now on to the film.

Frank demonstrates the distance he would go for his family, as it started to crumble when money became an issue. Frank’s father is being charged with tax fraud when Frank catches his mother with another man. One day, when Frank comes home from school he finds himself confronted by an attorney informing him of the upcoming divorce of his parents. Faced with the dilemma of choosing between his parents for custody, Frank runs away. Frank obviously prioritizes his family and idealizes the relationship that his parents have, as viewers can see when he watches them dance or recites the story of how they met. He can’t handle the separation of his family leading to him running away. In this way, Catch Me if You Can exhibits rational choice theory, even through the extreme choices of crime.

Frank’s intelligence seems to be one of his most defining characteristics, as he reasons his way into impersonating an airline pilot, doctor, and lawyer, while also passing the bar exam in Louisiana. He seems to stumble upon the idea of being an airline pilot after observing the ease of travel he sees when a group of airline attendants and a pilot walk into a luxurious hotel. He then gets the idea to interview a pilot, gaining knowledge on the lingo that is used and the basic procedures, as well as the credentials necessary, simply by posing as a student writing an article for his school newspaper. Frank also reaches out to the business that produces airline uniforms claiming it is his first week on the job, and he lost his uniform. A friendly voice on the other end of the telephone shares the location of the supply store, giving Frank the opportunity to start his “career” as a pilot. The happenstance of this entire situation supports that “for opportunity theorists, the criminal act is the outcome not simply of decisions but of contexts and opportunities that converge in time and space with offenders’ decisions” (18). If the crime had not been so easy to commit, it would never have happened in the first place.  Because Frank wasn’t challenged in his form of payment or his original inquiry, he continued to find and exploit opportunities. For instance, the woman who worked the desk for Pan Am asked if he was riding the jump seat for a particular flight. When given the opportunity, Frank agreed and went ahead with it. During this time too, he picked up more knowledge about the practice of flying, as well as the culture.

While winding down his career as a pilot, he meets a young woman in Louisiana while checking on a friend at the hospital. This woman, Brenda, takes to his affectionate ways and eventually serves on Frank’s staff when he poses as a doctor. Frank and Brenda eventually become a couple, and after Brenda breaks down one night while they are together, Frank finds out that she is estranged from her family after having an abortion. In response to this information, Frank suggests they get married. This would allow Brenda to reconnect with her family. Again, we see that Frank holds his ideal of reuniting a family highly, and applies this to Brenda’s family dynamic.

Frank finds comfort in being part of Brenda’s family unit, because it harkens back to his fond memories of close-knit family moments. The film offers a similar scene to when his parents start dancing in their old home before they moved. When Frank watched his parents from the doorway dance, he grinned and seemed content. When Frank stops and observes Brenda’s parents as they sway together to music while washing the dishes, he has a similar reaction displaying the fondness he has for parental figures that are so close. While Frank is putting on a show to a certain extent, through his prayer in the family’s Lutheran household, despite his discomfort with the act, he still is part of something that he has desired in his life since his family dynamic changed. This again shows the underlying fact that he makes decisions based on his wants and needs in relation to the risk associated with them. Staying with Brenda means he has to risk being caught, but that is a risk worth taking for the sake of reuniting a family.

When Frank meets his father at a bar and tells him of the marriage to Brenda, the choices that Frank has made become clear yet again. Frank claims that he is getting “everything back” and “I’m getting us everything back.” Not only is Frank concerned with the losses he experienced as an adolescent, but also with what his family experienced financially and emotionally. Frank suggests that the entire family will be reunited at the wedding, allowing his parents to get back together and for him to demonstrate the love he was taught that he is now living out with Brenda. At this moment, the film clearly the driving force for Frank’s actions. This theme of desire for a connected family can be seen as the lens that colors all of Frank’s decisions. When his father slashes that dream by telling him his mother has remarried, the drive to pursue more for the sake of his family is diminished.

This is later supported in the film, as it can be seen that Frank’s desire to keep up pretenses following Brenda’s eventual betrayal is again greatly diminished. When Frank is cornered by the FBI, he admits to Brenda his real name and creates a plan for her to run away with him, arranging to meet at the airport the next day. When he arrives at the airport, he sees Brenda and numerous undercover FBI agents, which tells Frank that Brenda ratted him out. Frank, knowing he still needs to escape seeks out young women for the flight attendant training program, not out of a youthful desire to be surrounded by pretty women; but to use their beauty as camouflage. It is a calculated move meant strictly to accomplish an end goal. This is not a crime of passion, but a solution to the blocked exit of the airport.

Another example of rational choice theory is the insistent lies Frank expresses, which fits with the way his father raised him, demonstrating the ways of being a con.  In one scene, Frank is a young man in high school and living with his not-yet-divorced parents. This scene demonstrates his intelligence by showing how he first pulls off a major career con as a substitute teacher, the imposture seems like a game to him, but a game where he can gain power. Frank is pushed around when walking in the halls, but establishes his authority by making the same individual who pushed him read in front of the whole class. The student’s French is poor at best, creating a situation where he is ridiculed. Frank chose to benefit himself through his impersonation.

Such an impersonation is a crime, but it allows him opportunities he prefers over those available to him in his role as a new student. This scene exemplifies that “in rational choice theories, the everyday world is a place in which the tug of wrongdoing is ever-present, with individuals purposefully choosing to break the law to further their own self-interests” (Rafter and Brown, 20). Frank is clearly invested in his own self-interests and uses everyday opportunities to capitalize on the potential for power and control. This scene from Frank’s youth is particularly poignant, as we know that Frank’s life seems to be spiraling out of the control of those individuals who are supposed to care for him. His father can’t figure out the finances and his mother seems to be more distant as time goes on.

Frank Abagnale Jr. offers an example of how crime is a choice that is enacted when there is opportunity and the benefits outweigh the potential losses. Throughout the film various scenes demonstrate what a driving force family connectivity is for Frank–so much so that even when he runs away instead of choosing between his parents, he is still fighting to solve some of their problems, including finances. Crime is easy to pursue for Frank, and that allowed for the chosen path of problem solving.

Works Cited

Rafter, Nicole Hahn, and Michelle Brown. Criminology Goes to the Movies: Crime Theory and Popular Culture. New York University, 2011.

Holmes Lake by Kenzie Busekist

Smack dab in the middle of Lincoln, Nebraska, sits a lake. More specifically, Holmes Lake. To be frank, the lake itself is quite gross. The water is composed of thick brown liquid that looks uninhabitable, yet the lake is home to whiskered catfish that resemble someone’s drunken grandpa, along with bug-eyed trout. The moss is a neon green color that covers most—if not all—of the rocks that surround the natural lake. The lake is small—112 acres to be exact. It’s nothing compared to the great lakes that are found up north. It is surrounded completely by trails, and you can almost always find a jogger or a biker circling the water. Flaws and all, the locals love the lake because it’s a great place to get some fresh air, hang out with friends, let dogs roam free and start up your own softball league. Continue reading “Holmes Lake by Kenzie Busekist”

Tiptoeing a Thin Line by Anna Walters

I began dreaming about being a ballerina at age six, and I began dreaming about being skinny at age twelve. It seems to be common knowledge, a stereotype turned fact, that ballet dancers have a higher tendency to develop eating disorders than non-dancers. The word “ballet” itself is surrounded by a stereotype. When people hear the word ballet, what images come to mind? Little girls in leather slippers, twirling around aimlessly? A stick-thin woman tip toeing to the beat of Waltz of the Sugar Plum Fairy? Whatever the image may be, I guarantee it doesn’t involve someone overweight. Continue reading “Tiptoeing a Thin Line by Anna Walters”

Fuck You, Elliot by Olive Riley

My fifth grade teacher, Ms. Stickman, sat us around the classroom in groups of four. Each time I had grown somewhat comfortable with my table companions she would uproot us, and I’d end up with three new classmates with whom I’d had little to no interaction. I realize now that she may have created these endlessly rotating seating charts to help kids, like me, who suffered from crippling social anxiety, but let me tell you that when I was eleven there was no way I was going to see these moves in any positive light. Especially after the time I was seated smack across from Elliot. Continue reading “Fuck You, Elliot by Olive Riley”

Life Talks, Spinning Tops, and Semi-Resolution by Autumn Meyer

It was March of my junior year of college when I decided I needed some help being a person, as people sometimes do. I opened the notebook that I typically used for journaling prayers and wrote at the bottom of that day’s entry, “God, I think I need to talk to someone about life.” Then I outlined questions (What should I do with my life? Why is this stressful for me? Who should I talk to about it? What should I ask?) until the obvious was staring at me. I like to avoid rigid organization—too confining, too conventional. But this time I needed it. And yeah, I really needed to talk to someone. Continue reading “Life Talks, Spinning Tops, and Semi-Resolution by Autumn Meyer”

Flawed by Jessica Banks


TALIA: Woman in her late 20’s, mother of Sophie and wife of MARK. She is a stay at home mom.

MARK: Man in his late 20’s, father of Sophie and husband of TALIA. As time goes on he is home less and less, seemingly consumed by work.

CAITLYN: Mutual friend of the couple. Has spent the day with TALIA and the baby to help due to the baby’s illness. She is also the baby’s godmother.

At Rise: CAITLYN is bustling around the stage, set up as a living room and kitchen, cleaning up the mess left over from the day. She wipes countertops, picks up baby toys, and does other miscellaneous chores. Mark enters stage right, dressed in a suit and carrying a briefcase. Both characters are clearly very surprised to see each other. Continue reading “Flawed by Jessica Banks”

Stained Glass Performance by Madison Glennie

The oak pew pressed against my back as I sat surrounded by clinging silence. Stained glass windows grew luminous behind the pulpit; the sun was rising. I clutched an open hymnbook in my hands while the preacher introduced the choir. His voice reverberated, piercing.

It was the Christmas service, and my gift for my extended family was my performance of religion. They unknowingly received it, accepting my participation as a normality.

The choir emerged from the preparatory room, my grandmother with them. The swish of their long robes punctuated the silence. After the singers lined up along the risers, the church’s pianist poised her fingers over the keys. My grandmother caught my eye and winked. I smiled and pushed my hair behind my ears— a small confession of my discomfort. As the first notes hit the air, everyone around me stood. I missed a cue in the play. I quickly stood to join them, and Sunday service memories of quaint dresses and peering over pews on my tip toes arose.

My grandmother, seventy-seven at this time, born during World War II, is a combination of the click of knitting needles, a pianist’s fingers, endless cookies, and the sound of prayers. She has sung in the choir ever since I can remember. She plans the church rummage sale every year, never misses a bell rehearsal, and unquestioningly believes. Continue reading “Stained Glass Performance by Madison Glennie”

The Way Things Are by Bailee Cofer

The smell of dog and discount laundry detergent

You don’t know how the other neighbors never seemed to smell it. The scent stuck to everything that came out of the house. The house that sat on the corner of the block in the middle of an affluent suburb in one of the safest cities in America. It lingered in Austin’s clothes and his hair, from the day you met to the day he disappeared. The smell of a mother’s house is hard to scrub off. Continue reading “The Way Things Are by Bailee Cofer”

Giova(n(o)n(n)a) by Giovanna Zavell

You will never meet the little girl who carries your name. You will never meet your youngest daughter’s daughter, or her son for that matter. Your husband will never meet his grandchildren either. Your grandchildren have had to learn what it is like growing up without a set of grandparents.

Your daughter’s daughter will never know who her grandmother is, who you are. Her Nonna. You never had the chance to hold her in your arms and shower her with warm kisses. You will never have the chance to tell her stories of living in Italy and what being Italian really means. She will know little about you because her mother does not speak much of you.

The heavy sadness of your young passing comes with any mention of your name. You were only in your 50s when cancer took over your body and forced your children to begin to learn what it was like living without a mother. And then, years later, cancer took over your husband’s body, and your children were left as orphans, filled with grief.

The only time your granddaughter will hear about you is when someone else is telling her how proud you would be of her. You will never be able to tell her these things yourself.

A few weeks before your granddaughter’s Bat Mitzvah, your middle daughter, her aunt, suddenly broke down in tears and told her how strongly she wished you could be in attendance. Your middle daughter told your granddaughter that even though you wouldn’t physically be there listening to her chant her Torah, you would be there spiritually.

You wish she could hear those words of praise in your voice.

The first time your granddaughter asks about you is when she is assigned a family history project in high school. She knew immediately she wanted to talk about you and your journey to America. She knew almost nothing of her maternal family’s history at this point.

You grew up in a poor farming town in Italy. When your granddaughter asked her mother what the town is called, your daughter replied, “Nonna and Nonno are from the town of Carapelle in the region of Abbruzzo. That means you are Abbruzzese, or more definitively Carapellese.” You will never be able to explain the hardships you faced growing up.

Your granddaughter had to learn the correct pronunciation of the town you once called home. Before presenting her project, she sat at her desk, quietly mouthing the foreign word. Her mother told her about the suitcases you lost, filled with photographs and memories from the place you once called home. The lost suitcases were a harsh reality of leaving Italy behind and starting new in Chicago.

When it was her turn to present her project to the class, it took everything in her not to cry at the mention of your name. Saying your story out loud made your absence all the more real. Saying you were not here anymore made it hurt more in that moment than it had ever hurt before.

You will never be in attendance at family gatherings. The smell of homemade bread, sauce and cheese seep out from the kitchen. Your sisters are always busy in the kitchen, making sure platters of food cover every inch of every table. Your sisters’ cooking is the closest your granddaughter will ever get to imagine how your chicken Parmesan would have been prepared or how plump your gnocchi were.

Your voice will never be heard amongst the accents of other relatives that fill the air at these gatherings. The beautiful Italian language will never be heard coming from your mouth. Instead, your granddaughter hears you through the imitations her mother and aunts do of you. Whether it is a pronunciation of an English word with a thick, Italian accent or an exasperated gesture, your granddaughter sees the woman you were through your daughters.

Your granddaughter wishes it were you pulling her in for a kiss and calling her bella.

You are mad that your sisters barely mention your name to your granddaughter. In fact, they almost never speak to her about you. Whether it is because of grief, even though it has been decades, the three sisters go about their lives, as if there were never a fourth. It is as if ignoring the fact that you aren’t around is a way of coping.

There is a caricature of you that hangs in the granddaughter’s childhood home. It hangs in the kitchen, right above the bench seat she often imagines you sitting on if you were to visit for dinner. The picture is made up of less than six colors; gray, green, red and black. Your tiny body and large, cartoon-like head pop out of a gray metal pot, and you have a spoon in hand. The words just above your gray hair read “at’sa spicy meat sauce.” Instead of you in the picture, your granddaughter’s friends believe it is your daughter, her mother.

You passed away before your daughter married. Your granddaughter grew up with just one set of grandparents. She grew up eating her grandmother’s kugel, schnitzel and matza ball soup. She was even raised in their faith. Not yours.

You will never be able to have your granddaughter over for dinner to eat gnocchi, pizzelle and minestrone soup. You’ll never be able to teach her the ways of your faith, Catholicism.

Your granddaughter is hungry for more information, now that she is older. Your absence in her life paints you like a mystical creature. One who watches from above.

She calls her mother, whose voice echoes on the phone. “I blame myself for not telling you more,” she says. “You need to know where you come from and who your grandparents were.”

Your name is Giovaninna and your granddaughter was named Giovanna. Sometimes this is the only connection your granddaughter feels to you.

“Giovanna,” her mother tells her. “You have to pronounce it correctly. JO-VAN-NA.”