“Dog Day Afternoon,” based on a notorious 1972 Brooklyn bank robbery and hostage crisis, scored big at the box office in 1975, won critical acclaim, and was nominated for five Oscars (it won for best adapted screenplay). Sidney Lumet directed, and does a fine job, but after watching “The Dog,” Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren’s bizarre, fascinating, and frustrating documentary about John Wojtowicz, the real life robber, I think a director like Werner Herzog might have done better. Or maybe John Waters.
Portrayed with sweaty intensity by Al Pacino, the Wojtowicz in “Dog Day Afternoon” exudes charisma and passion as a misfit who commits the heist because he needs money for his lover’s gender reassignment surgery. When thousands of spectators and the media gather, he proves a natural at working the crowd (in real life, the local TV coverage of the siege preempted Richard Nixon’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention).
As a criminal mastermind, though, Wojtowicz, enjoys less success. The FBI shoots his accomplice, arrests him, and he ends up sentenced to 20 years (he would serve only five).
“That’s the abbreviated version,” says Wojtowicz — paunchy and gray but still full of himself when Berg and Keraudren caught up with him in 2002. The longer version would take them four years to film, and seven more to get on the screen.
The result does justice to their subject’s foul-mouthed charm and braggadocio. A self-described “pervert,” he relates a life of extremes: early Goldwater conservatism, marriage to a childhood sweetheart, and a stint in Vietnam where he discovers he is gay after an encounter with a soldier named Wilbur. Demobilized and back in the United States, Wojtowicz is reborn as a pacifist and gay activist until he runs into the transgender Ernest Eden, the love of his life and the reason he robs the bank.
For the most part Berg and Keraudren follow Wojtowicz’s lead, supplementing his account with photos, archival film clips, and interviews with those involved, especially Wojtowicz’s potty-mouthed and doting mother. His life oddly reflects the early progress of gay rights — Wojtowicz himself had been a member of the Gay Activist Alliance. Certainly his crime put the cause on the front page, but members of the movement were horrified, and condemned it.
Perhaps rightly so. As the film unfolds, Wojtowicz’s megalomania and sociopathy become evident. Details of his cruelty, misogyny, and narcissism are revealed. As well as symptoms of the cancer that he refuses to treat and that would eventually kill him.
The filmmakers, however, don’t always dig deep enough into Wojtowicz’s dark side. In one disturbing clip, Wojtowicz and Eden appear on a talk show. Eden confesses that she was afraid Wojtowicz would kill her, a possibility that Wojtowicz confirms. She also claims the robbery was committed not out of love but because he was in debt to the mob. That seems worth some follow-up, but Berg and Keraudren let it drop.
They also don’t ask Wojtowicz if he even liked “Dog Day Afternoon,” nor do they interview any of the participants in that movie. But they do note that Wojtowicz took his crew to see Pacino in the “The Godfather” for inspiration before the robbery, and Wojtowicz would inspire Pacino in a performance that won him his fourth Oscar nomination. Neither ended up with the gold for that particular caper, but Pacino finally got his, a best actor trophy for “Scent of a Woman,” in 1993.