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Catch Me If You Can: A Film Review Through a Psychological Perspective

Justine is a university student currently taking up Psychology. She is a movie enthusiast and aims to share her ideas through writing.

The film Catch Me If You Can was based on the true story of Frank William Abagnale Jr. played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who forged bank checks and documents while posing as a co-pilot, a medical doctor, and a lawyer before he even turned 21 years old. It was an action and adventure, crime, drama, and biography movie that was directed by Steven Spielberg and aired on December 25, 2002. (Rotten Tomatoes, 2003)

In the movie, Frank Abagnale Jr. runs from home because his parents decided to separate and divorce. He lived alone for himself until he ran out of resources and was led on tricking bank clerks. His failures at first eventually lead him to successfully forged money from fake checks while posing as a co-pilot in a famous airline, he did his research and made money from the information that he gathered. He eventually decided to change course and chose to become a doctor and eventually a lawyer where he made more money. From time to time he wrote letters to his father and come to see him trying to provide for his needs. Before he turned 21, he had become one of the world’s most wanted criminals. In simple terms, Frank is a young and wise conman who is able to take millions of dollars by faking checks, documents, his identity, and profession. On the other hand, however, he is a kid trying to fill the gaps in their family relationships that eventually led him in forging money and doing crimes.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Abagnale Jr.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Abagnale Jr.

Some Psychology Behind the Film

Psychology is a versatile and diverse field, hence, a lot of psychology-relevant concepts and ideas might be found and applied to the film.

Frank Abagnale’s act of manipulating various kinds of people was a huge part of the movie. This part had a relevant psychology concept to consider. Many people in the movie were showed to comply with whom they perceived as a professional, likewise, Abagnale took advantage of this phenomenon to manipulate and exploit others. The principles of how he was able to make others believe his ruse is known as the six principles of influence described by Robert Cialdini – reciprocity, commitment and consistency, liking, social proof, authority, and scarcity (Cooling, 2012).

  • Reciprocity – it is when people give back the favor that was given or shown to them. Persuaders under reciprocity often do favors and expect a favor in return.
  • Commitment and consistency – people like to be consistent with their identity and perceived self-image. Once they saw or felt good about their action, they tend to commit to doing that action.
  • Liking – people are easier to persuade or be influenced by someone or something that they like. Hence, presenting oneself as pleasant and likable increases that chance of persuasion.
  • Social proof – as social creatures, people tend to conform with their society most of the time. In decision-making, most people tend to look for what other people around them, or the majority thinks about it.
  • Authority – individuals in authority or in unform were usually perceived to be more credible and knowledgeable. Hence, people in authority are more influential and persuasive.
  • Scarcity – the lesser the quantity, the more people tend to want something. A persuader can use the scarcity of something to persuade people to want it.

With the use of uniforms – of a pilot, doctor, and lawyer – and fake documents and identification cards (ID cards), Frank Abagnale Jr. successfully used the power of authority in order to persuade and influence other people’s decisions and perceptions. In addition, his knowledge of various professional jargon from his thorough research made people believe his authenticity as a professional. In addition, the more people he made to believe him, the easier it gets to persuade others which is under the idea of social proof. Moreover, he also used his looks and charms which touched the principle of liking in making people believe his ruse. This explains how a charming teenage boy like Frank was able to successfully impersonate professionals, made people believed his tricks, and forge money for years.

Furthermore, as a teenage boy, Frank Abagnale Jr. may have experienced an identity crisis while indulging himself with his negative actions. He is within the age-range of Eric Erickson’s adolescence stage (around 12 to 18 years old) which has a basic conflict between his identity and role confusion. Also, the movie showed how pleasure-directed most of his decisions are, this aspect gave an emphasis on Freud’s Id principle where an individual and his decisions are solely directed by pleasurable desires of the self.

On the other hand, observational learning from Bandura’s concept is also a relevant explanation of some of Abagnale’s actions throughout the movie. The noticeable closeness of Frank and his father – Frank Abagnale Sr. – is one of the probable reasons why his father became an influential model to him. In the movie, he dances like his father and did tricks that he first saw from his father. His father became a huge model for him, and he was his idol.

Frank Abagnale Jr.with his father Frank Abagnale Sr. played by Christopher Walken

Frank Abagnale Jr.with his father Frank Abagnale Sr. played by Christopher Walken

Frank Abagnale Jr. Today

According to the movie, Frank Abagnale Jr. eventually got married and had three sons. From his release in 1974, he helped the FBI capture some of the most intangible check forgers and frauds in the world. Also, from his experience and knowledge, he designed many of the security checks that are used by many banks and companies. After helping the FBI for more than 30 years, he founded his own financial fraud consultancy company – Abagnale and Associates – educating corporations, financial institutions, and government organizations on how to detect and handle different frauds (Biography.com, 2019). Today, he is known as a businessman and a well-known security consultant with a net worth of 10 million dollars as of 2018.

The story of Frank Abagnale is not our typical plot of superheroes, romance, and definitely not a typical rags-to-riches story. The movie is a revised and a part of Frank Abagnale’s life, there is much to know about him outside the movie. Indeed, the path that he first took to the life where he now is unpleasant but being a human who has his free will to change and decided, he changes his ways and made his past a tool to have the current status he has today.

Frank Abagnale Jr. (Left) and Leonardo DiCaprio (Right)

Frank Abagnale Jr. (Left) and Leonardo DiCaprio (Right)

Conclusion

The life lesson that I got from this movie is that no one is perfect and good, but we can choose to be better. Some might still raise their eyebrows at Abagnale and see him as a criminal, despite his change of path and the reputation that he had made in the financial security system. Indeed, he had his choice not to choose a criminal path back then considering his wit, but people have to keep in mind that we can be directly affected by our internal thoughts and external environment, each of us act and react uniquely to different stimulus in our lives. Abagnale was a teenager when he started doing his little crimes, his family was falling apart, their business is in a mess and his parents were getting a divorce, we cannot know how that felt that lead him to run away and start his crimes. He fell short and chose the criminal path, but it does not mean that it is the end. Society cannot just insist him to stay behind bars when he is able to pick himself up and change his ways. No one can define us from our past and nor from our mistakes.

Sources

  • Biography.com. (2019). Frank Abagnale. https://www.biography.com/personality/frankabagnale
  • Cooling, G. (2012). The Six Principles of Influence, Cialdini Concepts for Compliance professionals. https://www.google.com/amp/s/justaudiologystuff.com/the-six-principle-ofinfluence-cialdini-concepts-for-compliance-proffesionals/amp/
  • Rotten Tomatoes. (2003). https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/catch_me_if_you_can
  • World of Work Project. (n.d.). Cialdini’s 6 Principles of Persuasion: A Simple Summary. https://worldofwork.io/2019/07/cialdinis-6-principles-of-persuasion/#:~:text=The%20six%20key%20principles%20Cialdini,consensus%20(or%20social%20proof).

© 2021 Justine Louice Jiao

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