Movie review: Story of 'Dog Day' robber highlights line between fact and fiction
Truth can be stranger than fiction, but fiction often has the benefit of yielding the better-told story.
That's certainly the case of John Wojtowicz, whose messy life has now been told twice on film: in 1975, in Sidney Lumet's classic bank-robbery film "Dog Day Afternoon," and in a new documentary, "The Dog" both of which are playing this week at the Tower Theatre.
"Dog Day Afternoon" is a somewhat fictionalized account of an attempt, on Aug. 22, 1972, to rob a Brooklyn bank and how what should have been a five-minute bank job became an hourslong crisis, with flustered Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino, in probably his best performance) dealing with the cops and media circus outside while his twitchy accomplice, Sal Naturale (John Cazale), holds the bank employees hostage.
Tightly directed by Sidney Lumet and with the actors improvising off of Frank Pierson's Oscar-winning script, "Dog Day Afternoon" is a masterpiece about losers beaten down by society and taking a desperate swing at being outlaws. The dramatic tension is neatly matched by the caustic anti-authority commentary exemplified by Sonny's "Attica! Attica!" chant, a reminder of a then-fresh example of government-mandated lethal force.
In "The Dog," directors Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren make a startling revelation early on: The details of "Dog Day Afternoon" are surprisingly close to reality.
Or so says Wojtowicz, some 30 years later, in a series of bombastic interviews. He talks candidly and boastfully about how he married a woman, separated from her in less than two years, and then started up a passionate romance with Ernest Aron, a transsexual who sought to have a sex-change operation the cost of which was to be paid from the proceeds of Wojtowicz's bank heist.
In detailing the period before the robbery, Berg and Keraudren use Wojtowicz's boasts as a window into the early days of New York's gay-rights movement. The filmmakers interview some survivors from that era, who tell of a humorous early attempt at a gay-marriage protest, which included Wojtowicz.
"The Dog" plods when it describes the robbery itself face it, Lumet did it better but gets interesting again when it examines Wojtowicz's later life. He endured prison beatings, had a jailhouse "marriage" with a gay inmate, tried to find work while on parole and ultimately used his notoriety to make a few bucks. Saddest of all, according to his state-ordered psychiatrist, the ex-con started to believe he was the antihero created by Pacino's fictionalized version of his real life.
The portrait "The Dog" creates of Wojtowicz is of a man more complex not to mention creepier and more pathetic than the fictional version. The tightly wound narrative of "Dog Day Afternoon" conveys more emotion than the messy reality of his life, but the two films together are a fascinating study in contrasts.
'Dog Day Afternoon'
A documentary shows the messy reality of a Brooklyn bank robber's life, in contrast to the classic movie his exploits inspired.
Where • Tower Theatre.
When • Opens Friday, Aug. 15.
Rating • "The Dog" is not rated, but probably R for language and sexual material; "Dog Day Afternoon" is rated R for language, some violence and sexual content.
Running time • "The Dog" is 100 minutes; "Dog Day Afternoon" is 125 minutes.