Review of Catch Me If You Can (2002)

The feature film Catch Me If You Can (2002) stars actor Tom Hanks as FBI Special Agent Carl Handratty, a veteran agent determined to apprehend young con artist Frank Abagnale Jr., played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Christopher Walken and Martin Sheen also star in the movie, directed and produced by Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks.

Here’s the premise: Barely 21 yet, Frank is a skilled forger who has passed as a doctor, lawyer and pilot. FBI agent Carl becomes obsessed with tracking down the con man, who only revels in the pursuit.

The film is based on the memoir of Frank Abagnale Jr., which recounts his *true-life adventures as a check forger when he was a young adult.

During the movie, his successful impersonations allow him to steal millions of dollars while evading capture by Agent Handratty, who chases him around the US and overseas.

My review of Catch Me If You Can for FBI policy and procedural accuracy focuses on Agent Handratty’s domestic and foreign pursuit of Frank. To investigate this global check fraud scheme, Agent Handratty travels with his team to wherever Frank is located. They finally arrest him in France.

The most significant advantages of the FBI are its multi-state jurisdiction, ability to pursue investigations across state lines and its 63 legal attaché offices—commonly known as legats—and 15 smaller sub-offices are located in key cities around the globe and provide coverage for more than 180 countries, territories, and islands.

However, agents assigned to cases with witnesses and documents around the world can’t just hop on a plane to conduct interviews and gather evidence anytime they want.

Due to case efficiencies and budget constraints, many investigations require case agents to send requests for investigation to FBI offices throughout the country. Such requests are known as a “leads” and they are assigned to “lead agents” who interview witnesses, conduct surveillances, or obtain documents on behalf of the case agent assigned to the originating field office.

If an FBI agent wishes to travel to a foreign country to execute an arrest, the agent must first submit an official request through the Department of Justice to obtain host country clearance. Then a request for extradition is required to be transmitted through diplomatic channels for a domestic extradition arrest warrant.

Upon approval and arrival in the foreign country, agents are still not authorized to conduct the arrest, but optimistically anticipate that they will be allowed to accompany the foreign country’s law enforcement officials during the apprehension.

When in France, Frank asks Agent Handratty if he has his gun, and he answers that he is not armed.

Most countries (including the US) do not allow visiting foreign law enforcement officers to carry weapons.

The agent will need to rely on the host country’s police and security personnel for protection. Exceptions are often made for agents to be armed in third world countries where safety is an ongoing concern.

One last observation. The FBI pays informants and cooperating witnesses to provide information but would never allow one to work full time in a field office. Plus, why does Frank get to have his own office?

Other than that, the film provides a good understanding of how a financial fraud case is investigated.

If you haven’t seen the movie yet, you should. Catch Me If You Can is available to rent on Amazon Prime and YouTube. Watch the official trailer here.

*Was this movie really based on a true story? Check out the new series on Pretend to learn never-before-revealed details about Frank Abagnale’s early years of crime.

Jerri Williams

View posts by Jerri Williams
Jerri Williams, a retired FBI agent, author and podcaster, jokes that she writes about the FBI to relive her glory days. After 26 years with the Bureau specializing in major economic fraud and corruption investigations, she calls on her professional encounters with scams and schemers to write police procedurals inspired by true crime FBI cases in her Philadelphia FBI Corruption Squad crime fiction series featuring flawed female FBI agent Kari Wheeler. Jerri’s FBI for Armchair Detectives nonfiction series enables readers to discover who the FBI is and what the FBI does by debunking misconceptions about the FBI in books, TV, and movies. Her books are available as ebooks, paperbacks, and audiobooks wherever books are sold. She’s also the host of FBI Retired Case File Review, a true crime podcast with more than 250 episodes available for free on all popular podcast apps.

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