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Hot on their trail

Culture | Three semi-fiction films, Catch Me if You Can, Gangs of New York, and Rabbit-Proof Fence, follow the paths of a teenage con man, immigrants in 19th-century New York, and aboriginal girls trying to return home

Issue: "30 years of destruction," Jan. 18, 2003

AS HAS BECOME THE USUAL practice, film studios packed the holiday season with new releases. It's the time of year for prestige projects: movies expected to gain critical praise, and, ideally, Oscar buzz. We can divide the lot into two categories: those based on, or "inspired by," true events, and those not. Here's a quick look at three of the semi-fiction films in theaters now: Catch Me If You Can Rated PG-13 for some sexual content and brief bad language, Catch Me If You Can was inspired by the story of Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio), a teenage con man who, between 1963 and 1969, successfully impersonated an airline pilot, a medical doctor, and a lawyer, all the while passing millions of dollars in bad checks. Hot on his trail for most of this wild ride is a dogged FBI agent played by Tom Hanks, apparently an amalgamation of several real-life characters. Director Steven Spielberg takes a comfortable, straightforward approach to the story, which is sprinkled with light humor and a few touching scenes. (Despite the breezy tone in two morally objectionable scenes, Frank uses his charms to con women into bed.) Frank, we learn, took up his dishonest career to compensate for the shortcomings of his similarly inclined but less skillful father, masterfully-and sympathetically-played by Christopher Walken. Yet Mr. DiCaprio plays Frank, effectively, not as the hardened result of a troubled childhood but as a lonely boy, still very much in adolescence, who happens to have the ability to project a supremely confident outward demeanor. Catch Me If You Can is a mostly pleasant, easy ride, buoyed by the parallel father-son relationships of Frank with his real father and Frank with Mr. Hanks' benevolent Agent Hanratty. The story, in that it is mostly true, is remarkable. A film so finely executed, however, raises expectations of moral weight or some profound human insight. The first is certainly not to be found here, and I'm not yet convinced of the second. Gangs of New York Rated R for intense strong violence, sexuality/nudity, and bad language, Gangs is Martin Scorsese's brutal chronicle of immigrant life in 1860s New York City. The story focuses on an area known as the Five Points, a foul, tribal district overrun by competing gangs with names like Dead Rabbits and Forty Thieves. Mr. DiCaprio, in a very different and not always as successful role, plays young Amsterdam Vallon, an orphan who returns to the Five Points to avenge his father's death at the hands of William Cutting, also known as "Bill the Butcher." Cutting (a ferocious Daniel Day-Lewis, carrying the film) is the leader of a gang of immigrant (read Irish) hating and dominant nativists; Amsterdam's father, "Priest" Vallon, was the last Irish chief to effectively challenge the Butcher. This personal battle is set against the backdrop of seething conflicts that threaten to tear the city of New York apart at any moment-not simply Protestants versus Catholics or natives (a relative term, if there ever was one) versus immigrants, but rich versus poor, white versus black, parochial Democrats versus Lincoln Republicans. And the city did erupt, finally, in the draft riots of 1863, incredibly realized at the conclusion of the film. As a piece of forgotten, or at least often overlooked history, and to the degree that it is accurate, Gangs of New York is fascinating. From a cultural and political standpoint, the film is more problematic, in that it seems to implicate, without exception, both religious and patriotic fervor with violence and hatred. And, as entertainment, Mr. Scorsese's sweeping directorial scope and the film's often powerful performances, the brutally violent and sexually explicit Gangs of New York is probably most difficult to accept. Rabbit-Proof fence A story of oppression on a much smaller scale is Phillip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence (rated PG for emotional thematic material). It is the moving story of three aboriginal girls in 1931 Australia who walk 1,500 miles to return to their homeland after being kidnapped by the government. Kenneth Branagh, as A.O. Neville, the government-appointed chief protector of Aborigines, oversees a program designed to take mixed-race children from their mothers (the fathers were usually out of the picture already) and place them in a school where they could learn the skills necessary to assimilate into white culture. The girls, two sisters and a cousin, escape from the school and begin the long and dangerous journey home. The girls' story is told with a simple, almost spare style, matched by a similarly photographed landscape, the desolately beautiful Australian outback. Although the white characters involved-and, really, the story itself-are easy targets for left-leaning Hollywood, the film avoids melodrama and politicization enough to remain powerful. Mr. Branagh's performance is sufficiently understated to keep from demonizing the sadly confused but not entirely monstrous Mr. Neville, but the standouts are the girls themselves, lending real weight to this poignant tale.

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