Published Aug 14, 2014"We're all making history tonight," Al Pacino tells a bank full of terrified hostages in his Academy Award-nominated performance in Dog Day Afternoon. The film, released in 1975, tells the story of one of the most bizarre bank heists in the annals of crime before and, one would think, since. Pacino played John Wojtowicz, a real-life, self-described pervert who robbed a bank to finance a sex change operation for his "wife," Ernest, in an era when gay marriage was considered a ludicrous concept. This was after John and Ernest tricked a priest into wedding them without discovering he was dealing with a same-sex couple.
Now 40 years later, the events of Wojtowicz's dog day afternoon are fleshed out in jaw-dropping detail in The Dog, a riveting documentary that fills in more than a few gaps of the infamous story. For one, Wojtowicz was against the idea of his wife swapping genitals at first, but when it became apparent that this was an ultimatum between an operation or suicide, he became determined to pay for the expensive new procedure by any means necessary. And so with two of his sexually liberated village friends, Wojtowicz and his band of desperados, having first gone to see The Godfather in its opening weekend for motivation, headed to a Brooklyn Chase Bank to meet their twisted destiny.
As if the events preceding that dog day afternoon weren't attention-grabbing enough, the irregular details of the robbery itself were more than substantial enough to fill a two-plus hour Hollywood film. The ways Wojtowicz antagonized the police, dealt with the media and flamed the fire of spectacle, winning the fandom of Brooklyn's neighbourhood spectators, were also enough to win over audiences of the robbery's cinematic adaptation. John was a natural born protagonist.
But Dog Day Afternoon was only half the story. Even the biggest fans of the robbery will be shocked and fascinated by the nuanced details and surrounding characters The Dog brings to light. Interview subjects range from Wojtowicz's village friends, to bank tellers who were present at the robbery, to his unconditionally loving mother, all of whom offer a contrasting array of perspectives that tell a contradicting and tangled tale. No subject is more watchable than Wojtowicz himself, a jovial storyteller, who seems to embody small elements of the varying accounts of his personality.
Directors Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren filmed the aging Dog from 2003 until his death in 2006. Over the course of the shoot, we see Wojtowicz's health deteriorate as his cancer takes hold, but the charisma that's always made him so likable is still on display, even as the life gradually fades from his face. Watching him narrate his life events, it's not hard to see why he was fawned over by multiple partners in the early '70s village, nor is it difficult to understand why his robbery stunt was met with open arms by the neighbourhood spectators, tickled by mid-heist developments like Wojtowicz's ordering of pizzas or throwing money out the front entrance. But as a bank teller is quick to remind the audience, despite Wojtowicz's entertainment value, there is something undeniably psychopathic about a man who inflicts terror on hostages. It is also more than a little disconcerting that his crime awarded him the type of celebrity that would eventually allow him to return to the bank for the purpose of selling autographs and publicity shots.
At a tight 100 minutes, in addition to capturing the notorious crime, The Dog is an endlessly curious look at a hedonistic period before gay culture found its communal pride. It provides intricately layered context to the afternoon in question, then is already onto the epilogue by the film's midway point, as the aftermath proves to be almost as, if not more bizarre than, the afternoon itself. Audiences won't necessarily leave the theatre agreeing that Wojtowicz's actions were noble, but it's hard to argue that despite this being one of the weirdest underdog stories out there, you still have to root for him.
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