Fictional Nemeses

I recently caught up with Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can [2002]. While it was a fun little semi-comical adventure, and the cast all did what they were supposed to do, it was far too amiable and straightforward for me to really get too caught up in it. The plot revolved around a young con-man and the FBI agent tasked with bringing him to justice. The twist: their obsessive personalities mean that each is the only suitable friend for the other. Rivalry becomes friendship, in the classic reversal of best friends becoming the worst enemies. If we’re honest about this film, we don’t really have much reason to like either character. Our empathy is generated by their structural prominence as protagonists, by eliding the human costs of their particular character defects, and, most importantly, by their mutual recognition of spiritual kinship and hence friendship.

This happy ending is signalled in a few key moments scattered throughout the film, but is mostly a structural incongruence. From the start, the film is about the chase – it’s signalled right there in the name of the film – and the happy ending is a long coda that comes after the conclusion the chase. In other words, it is added on to complete the friendship sub-plot, which was a strategy for generating empathy for these two lonely and not particularly likeable characters. If that last 15-20 minutes were cut, I think the film would be more interesting, as the friendship would exist as subtext, rather than text; Spielberg isn’t a film-maker who’s comfortable with leaving things as subtext though, so I’m not surprised he felt the need to carry on. Speilberg knows that you can rarely go wrong with a happy ending.

Catch Me If You Can is an incidental work; what caught my attention while watching it was really that the construction of the antagonist-soulmate felt completely comfortable and accomplished. It has become a formula, that we can experience through small variations, rather than having to really engage with figuring out a specific or individual relationship dynamic. It almost seems at times to have become obligatory that two leading characters that are operating in the same basic paradigm must, of course, be as much friends as enemies, and the specificity of their lifestyles means that really, only they understand each other. When this is done well, you get Alec Trevelyan versus James Bond.

This is not the model of antagonism that we find in Classical literature. Hector and Achilles, the original nemeses, are not friends: while they respect each other, there is no sense of comradarie. The closest that I can see to affection comes from Achilles’ speech to Agamemnon in Book 1: “… some day longing for Achilleus will come to the sons of Achaians, all of them. Then stricken at heart though you be, you will be able to do nothing, when in their numbers before man-slaughtering Hektor they drop and die. [I.241-242]” Homer always has wonderful smack talk. Achilles consistently builds up Hector, so that when they finally meet, the glory (kleos) of his victory will be maximised. When Hector falls into Achilles’ hands, Achilles drags Hector’s corpse around the outside of the city, defiling the corpse to underscore how powerless he has made Hector. By that point in the story, even respect has gone.

I suspect that the idea of the friend-enemies enters the Western literary tradition in a major way with the rivalry between Pompey and Julius Caesar. They ruled the dying embers of the Roman Republic together in the first triumvirate, and were related by marriage between Pompey and Caesar’s daughter. Their civil war concluded with Pompey’s murder by Egyptians – a murder that Caesar revenged as if they were still close, despite everything. That concept of rivals whose personal lives are intertwined crops up in several of Shakespeare’s Roman plays, most notably Coriolanus. To some extent though, this same quest for greater gory drives these stories. Caesar became “the great general” partially through his expertise at defeating generals with the same basic tactical strengths, rather than defeating barbarians of notably inferior military technology.

In Catch Me If You Can, the relationship between the two protagonists is more-or-less the central thing of dramatic interest. Despite its apparent premise, it’s not really a procedural story in a meaningful way. In comparison, The Iliad, is the story of what happens in Achilles’ absence from the fighting. The looming conflict between Hector and Achilles is almost a framing narrative, bookending action through the centre of the narrative that does not directly concern either. A narrative about two fighters going directly head-to-head would quickly become repetitive – makers of Superhero films take note! Frienemies have a bigger dramatic range available to them, so they can occupy more direct narration without fatiguing the audience, and more easily draw in peripheral relationships.

In some ways, that makes the decision to add the element of friendship into an adversarial relationship a pragmatic one, rather than aesthetic. It creates and opens possibilities. In particular, it allows the imperfect plan to seem justified in story terms. Why doesn’t Professor X kill Magneto outside the trainstation in X-Men? Of course, there is a moral reason – the figleaf protecting Batman from being a full sociopath – but more importantly, they are friends. That personal and specific connection makes a somewhat questionable decision on moral grounds into a completly understandable decision on personal grounds.

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