“Catch Me If You Can” by Steven Spielberg


Catch Me If You Can is a biographical drama film that depicts the personal and criminal life of Frank Abagnale, who engaged in a series of financial, forging, and fraudulent crimes at a young age. The plot is inherently interesting as it portrays the origin of Abagnale’s skills, intentions, and emotions while engaging in criminal activity. These aspects become important for examination in the context of social criminology theories to determine the trajectory of criminal behavior. The theories of social learning theory and social disorganization can be applied to Catch Me If You Can, suggesting that Abagnale was influenced into the life of crime by his father and sought to adopt it as his lifestyle as a manner of survival and competition in society.

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Social Learning Perspective

The social learning theory created by Ronald Akers suggests that criminal actions are learned based on the social structure, interactions, or situations that influence the behaviors. The probability of criminality or, the opposite, conforming to social norms increases when associating with others who engage in similar behaviors or this type of model, serving as justification for such action (Greene, n.d.). In the film, Abagnale is a teenager who is both easily influenced and very impressionable, particularly by his father. It is implied that he witnessed his father attempt to get rich and achieve success through con and deceit, only to blame the unfairness of the law when facing punishment for it. The father is portrayed as a person employing petty crime and immorality to achieve his means, which reflects on the naïve Abagnale at an early age.

In turn, such plot events lead to the social learning component of the theory that underlines the importance of interactions of the individuals with their surrounding contexts and society. It is where the learning takes place, with values and attitudes forming the moral compass of a person, influencing whether they would participate or not in non-conforming behavior. Personal definitions for crime and deviance follow a continuum that undergoes differential reinforcement based on the balance on the perceived, anticipated, and received rewards and punishments (Akers & Jennings, 2016).

Analyzing Abagnale from this perspective of the theory, it is evident that he engages in criminality as a manner of rebellion as well as achievement of status, which he believes was taken from his family. His father, whom he venerates, was given recognition for his work and a symbol of social status, which was instantly taken away by the IRS, a federal agency. Soon after, his mother begins to cheat and eventually leaves his father, leading to further social humiliation. Contributing to the fact that Frank was already anti-social and a troubled youth that could not find his place in the world, Abagnale found a certain satisfaction in committing the crime as a manner of clashing with social structures that led to the downfall of his father.

Through fraud and con-artist behavior symbolically achieved a status that his family dreamed about, something he attempted to pass down to his father in the form of money and a good car so that he could get his wife back. Through differential reinforcement, Frank understood the consequences of criminal activity, seeing it in his father’s example. However, when achieving such rapid success without any repercussions at first (he stole almost $3 million before the FBI began tracking him), it reinforced the value of such criminal behavior, pushing him to further engage in it (Parkes & Spielberg, 2002).

Strengths and Weaknesses

The origin of criminal behavior on Frank’s part was a reflection of his twisted belief system, which was favorable to such models of financial crime and a larger imitation of criminal models that his father attempted. The strength of the Social Learning Theory is its universality, as its core concepts can be utilized to explain the origins and intentions of practically any criminal activity. Social learning demonstrates stronger empirical support for accurately examining criminality than many other approaches. This leads it to the second strength that the theory can be used to reverse and reform criminal activity as well, using the very same principles. Conformity to social norms can be ensured through treatment and operant conditions that modify the established beliefs (Ryan, Vanderlick, & Matthews, 2007). This is demonstrated in the film when Abagnale is jailed and then offered to work for the FBI for the remainder of the sentence. Under the guidance and positive influence of the agent, he is able to reform his ways even when missing the “thrill” of the chase. He begins to understand that his criminal ways are non-conforming to socially acceptable norms.

The main critique of the Social Learning theory is its fundamental idea that criminal conduct is learned through associations with deviant peers and influences. However, there are instances where individuals may develop such criminal attitudes without prior exposure and then seek out similarly-minded individuals. The causal relationship is not set in stone as individuals with low self-control or anti-social tendencies will engage in similar behavior actions (Greene, n.d.). In other respects, the theory may be weak in that using this approach, the question of accountability ultimately shifts away from the criminal offender. Utilizing this approach in policy or justice may set a dangerous precedent since individuals may emphasize the environmental influence as justification for crime, which in correlation to the previous weakness, may have little meaning.

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Social Disorganization Perspective

Social disorganization theory is one of the earliest theories on crime, suggesting that cities and their environments influenced individual deviant behavior. Furthermore, the theory suggests that the differences in crime can be attributed to cultural and socioeconomic characteristics in that area that directly impacts the level of social control over crime levels that can be exerted (McNeely, 2014). In the film, Abagnale’s family was suddenly thrust into poverty, forced to move from a suburban home into a small apartment where they struggled for food. It was there he learned many of the cons that his father taught him and began his first steps towards crime by impersonating authoritative figures. The theory can be associated later on as well when Frank runs away from home. In order to survive and pay the bills in the big city, he commits a life of crime. Albeit he views it as innocent, the environmental influence of his community, or a lack thereof, due to poor social control, has led him to commit a crime.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Social disorganization theory provides the foundation for an ecological, sociological explanation of crime. It is able to account for demographic or regional spikes in crime as well as the influence of culture or upbringing. In turn, this can be used to predict crime levels on a large scale (Xiong, 2016). Its strength is that it accounts for social dynamics and influences on crime that other theories do not approach. The social disorganization perspective eventually went on to become the groundwork for Control Theory and Cultural Deviance Theory.

The challenges of theory can be attributed to several aspects. First, it the ability to identify and measure social mechanisms that account for criminal behavior and rates in an environment that is ‘socially disorganized.’ Furthermore, the theory does not account for individual differences and aspects or include cultural aspects that contribute to crime (Kubrin & Wo, 2015). These may fall outside the traditional disorganized neighborhood parameters. Criminal behavior is often a combination of personal and cultural values. While there are certain environments and areas where the ‘street’ code of living promotes social delinquency due to a loss of control, it is not always the case (McNeely, 2014). Not enough research has been done with appropriate tools to empirically and accurately apply the social disorganization theory, which remains its primary weakness.


It is evident that the plot and protagonist of Catch Me If You Can directly represent the trajectory of criminal behavior. Abagnale’s foundation in crime can be traced back to the social learning theory due to association and influence from his father. Meanwhile, his continuance to engage in criminal fraudulence is a manner of social disorganization theory which can attribute the behavior to survival and fitting with his socio-economic environment. Through criminal theory, the analysis of both fictional and real-life offenders can be analyzed by criminologists and audiences to draw appropriate conclusions.


Akers, R. L., & Jennings, W. G. (2016). Social learning theory. In A. R. Piquero (Ed.), The handbook of criminological theory (pp. 230-240). West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons.

Kubrin, C. E., & Wo, J. C. (2015). Social disorganization theory’s greatest challenge. In A. R. Piquero (Ed.), The handbook of criminological theory (pp. 121-136). West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons.

McNeeley, S. (2014). Social disorganization theory. In J. S. Albanese et al. (Eds.), The encyclopedia of criminology and criminal justice (pp. 1-5). Hoboken, NJ: Blackwell Publishing.

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Greene, C. (n.d.). Review of the roots of youth violence: Literature reviews.

Spielberg, S. (Director). (2002). Catch me if you can [Motion Picture]. United States: DreamWorks Pictures.

Ryan, C., Vanderlick, J., & Matthews, W. (2007). A paradoxical analysis of social learning theory as applied to the potential reform of terrorist offenders. Professional Issues in Criminal Justice, 2(1), 91-102.

Xiong, H. (2016). Crime and social disorganization in China. Singapore, Singapore: Springer.

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1. StudyCorgi. ""Catch Me If You Can" by Steven Spielberg." May 30, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/catch-me-if-you-can-by-steven-spielberg/.


StudyCorgi. ""Catch Me If You Can" by Steven Spielberg." May 30, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/catch-me-if-you-can-by-steven-spielberg/.


StudyCorgi. 2021. ""Catch Me If You Can" by Steven Spielberg." May 30, 2021. https://studycorgi.com/catch-me-if-you-can-by-steven-spielberg/.


StudyCorgi. (2021) '"Catch Me If You Can" by Steven Spielberg'. 30 May.

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