In the 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon, Al Pacino plays a gay man who robs a bank to fund his lover’s sex change operation. The robbery goes wrong, and during the ensuing stand-off with the cops, Pacino’s character becomes the ringleader of a media circus. The acting is superb, and the film is widely considered a classic. It humanized one aspect of alternative sexualities by showcasing Pacino’s relationship struggles with his lover, played wonderfully by Chris Sarandon.
So at first glance, The Dog, a documentary directed by Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren, about the bank robber who inspired Dog Day Afternoon, seems like an unnecessary movie. The fictionalized version said enough about Wojtowicz’s life—why make a documentary about the short-lived glory of “that guy that that movie was based on”? And for the first half of The Dog, that question goes unanswered. Where Pacino’s character is a guy just trying to do a good thing by bad means, the real man, John Wojtowicz, is unabashedly sleazy, smug, unapologetic and overly proud of the attention garnered by his story. He loves talking about himself, and even when talking about the terrible things he’s done, he’s always convinced that he’s in the right.
The doc traces Wojtowicz’s life through the early ’80s, punctuated with current interviews and reflections, focusing primarily on the rise of Wojtowicz’s fame. It’s supplemented by fascinating archival video and pictures from early days, always focusing on Wojtowicz, even if he’s not in the center of the actual picture.
The film is gleefully narrated by Wojtowicz himself, and occasionally by his mother, Theresa, who often counterpoints and flat-out negates her son’s views. He is vulgar and crass, and completely unlike the character you love in Dog Day Afternoon. Theresa is a good-humored, elderly lady, at home in the stereotype of being a fussy New York Italian mother, complete with spaghetti for all of Wojtowicz’s homeless friends. It’s amusing, though very little insight is given regarding Wojtowicz’s life that isn’t implied by Pacino’s character work in Dog Day Afternoon. So mostly, watching The Dog is like watching a decent behind-the-scenes video on a DVD—interesting but not enlightening. Not at first.
Fortunately, after the first half hour, layers are finally revealed, and Wojtowicz’s bragging, self-satisfied veneer starts to thin. We meet Tony, Wojtowicz’s epileptic brother, who brings incredible and unexpected emotional weight to the story. Suddenly, the entire mood shifts, and instead of a doc about a guy in love with his own legend, the film is about a rounded character, desperately trying to live off that legend and keep it going.
The film flies through the bank robbery and through Wojtowicz’s incarceration and eventual parole, bullet-pointing his relationships with his several spouses, including Liz Eden, the lover from Dog Day Afternoon, and George Heath, who Wojtowicz married in prison. But the interviews with his myriad of lovers and acquaintances give the doc a subtle turn, showing Wojtowicz in a sympathetic light, as they talk with resigned sadness about someone they couldn’t help or change. The 1970s footage of Wojtowicz trying to get as much exposure and money as he could from being “The Dog” of Dog Day Afternoon, makes for a hard-to-watch look at someone who became a reality star before there were reality stars.
It’s absolutely a film worth watching. The doc deftly depicts the chasm between Wojtowicz’s perception of himself as a hero and what everyone else knows—that he was a novelty. Wojtowicz was a user and an opportunist, and everyone knew it, including him, to some degree. He smiles while talking about selling his story, and laughs while talking about how, in the end, he “won,” because, yes, Liz got the sex change. His story is somewhat heraldic to our times, and well told. After all, how many reality stars and faux-famous people have we seen publicly crash and burn? Wojtowicz was just one of many, and one of the first.
The Dog screens at the Roxy Fri., Aug. 22, through Sun., Aug. 24, at 9:15 PM nightly.