It wouldn’t really be fair to open this review with a quote from John Wojtowicz, convicted bank robber and subject of the new documentary The Dog. John is the type of guy to pause after a joke, self-satisfied smirk across his face, awaiting your approval and praise. The guy is a walking sound bite, so opening with one of his one-liners would feel almost congratulatory, like cheating.
John’s fame came when he, Salvatore Naturale and Bobby Westenberg attempted to rob a Chase Manhattan bank on August 22, 1972. The robbery failed, and quickly deteriorated into a hostage situation and swiftly thereafter a media circus. Before the ordeal was over, Naturale was dead and Wojtowicz revealed that his motives behind the robbery were to pay for a sex change operation for his boyfriend.
This sequence of events should sound familiar. It was the basis for the 1975 Academy Award-winning film Dog Day Afternoon, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Al Pacino in the role of John. (“I’m the bank robber. Fuck Al Pacino,” —John, of course.) It was John’s aloof, charismatic, and anti-establishment personality that carried the robbery into the media spotlight that immortalized the event, so it’s only fair that John get a documentary all to himself.
Dog Day Afternoon focused exclusively on the robbery itself, almost unfolding in real time. But here, directors Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren eruditely refrain from giving the robbery the same treatment. It would have been easy enough to craft a captivating documentary full of kinetic editing and powerful interviews from the events, but it would be unnecessary. Dog Day Afternoon has already done the play-by-play thing, and it’s a great film. So instead the filmmakers focus heavily on John, his sexuality, and the LGBT movement in the 1970s.
Given his desire to be the center of attention and willingness to please people, John’s sex life should come as no surprise. He describes himself as a pervert — since he doesn’t partake in alcohol, drugs or gambling, sex is his only vice. He loves and will have sex with pretty much anyone, it seems. The filmmakers interview two of his lovers — first wife Carmen Bifulco and prison wife George Heath — while including archival footage of his infamous girlfriend Elizabeth Eden (formerly Ernie Aron).
But the documentary lacks cohesion, with approaches from the first half (like the LGBT angle) abandoned and forgotten in the second. Unfortunately, this gives the impression of mere fascination by the filmmakers at John’s homosexual tendencies. For instance, John’s first gay experience occurred at basic training when he woke to a “hillbilly named Wilbur” performing oral sex on him. The incident is presented more like a joke (complete with punch line, “he blew great — like a summer breeze”) than a life-altering or mind-expanding experience. The film spends a while detailing John’s involvement with the Gay Activists Alliance, but I suspect it was more an easy way for him to get laid than a sincere political statement. Other, more promising avenues of interest, like John’s psychological problems or the rumor that the initial Chase Manhattan heist was initially mafia-related, are mentioned but never explored.
The directors do create a disheartening moment in the last five minutes, when we’re re-introduced to John. Until this point, John had only been seen in full health. Now, suffering from skin cancer, he is a shrunken, shriveled version of his former self. While this is to be expected, it is still upsetting to see the energy and passion, visibly evident even in his later years, gone so suddenly. The filmmakers’ method of making the change so sudden and startling for the audience only deepens the cruelness of this reminder of mortality. Robbery and imprisonment aside, John was a man who just had so much fun with life. This would be a dark place to end the film, so Berg and Keraudren throw in a final gag from John before the credits roll.
In Dog Day Afternoon, Pacino brought likability to his characterization of John. Sonny Wortzik (the character based on John) is not an anti-hero bank robber in the manner of Bonnie and Clyde. The way he stands up to authority, protects his hostages, and pays for his own pizza make him a hero instead of a protagonist. I imagine the film would have become iconic solely based on Pacino’s tight-lipped, manic-panic performance — although it never needed to (thanks to Frank Pierson’s script and Dede Allen’s editing). The Dog could not perform this trick. It’s a flat documentary, which tries but fails to survive on John Wojtowicz’s charisma alone.