The Dog (2013)
Editor’s Notes: The Dog opens tomorrow, August 15 at The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.
“Attica! Attica!” That chant soldified Al Pacino’s performance in Dog Day Afternoon as an iconic one. Pacino’s role as Sonny is one of the most celebrated of his career, and rightly so. As happens, though, the towering greatness of Pacino has overshadowed the reality of the person he portrays. Dog Day Afternoon retells a true story on the silver screen, but few people know much about the real people behind the story. The new documentary The Dog attempts to remedy this by shining a light on the life of the real “Sonny”, John Wojtowicz. Improbably, Wojtowicz’s story is even more twisting and entertaining than the version filmed by Sidney Lumet. Though not everything in The Dog works perfectly, its central character keeps it moving along.
Improbably, Wojtowicz’s story is even more twisting and entertaining than the version filmed by Sidney Lumet.
First, the basics: John Wojtowicz needed money. Specifically, he needed money for his wife’s sex change. Not his first, legal wife Carmen, with whom he had two children, but his second wife Ernest Aron, who was in the process of becoming Liz Eden. So he and two associates held up a Chase bank in the hopes of securing enough cash for the operation. But this we know from the movie. What The Dog does is contextualize that single day in the broader scope of a life. It examines John’s transformation from buttoned down conservative to gay right’s activist (thanks in part to his transformative experience in Vietnam). It explores his troubled relationship with Liz. It goes beyond the robbery itself to look at John’s life after, both in prison and out.
The sheer breadth of this endeavor means that The Dog (which clocks in at a lean 90 minutes) at times feels a little too breezy, blowing by events that could be born out more fully. In particular there’s little about John’s early life, which, given a bomb dropping revelation that comes halfway through the film, feels necessary to understand more fully John’s actions. Certain facts get mentioned but never fleshed out; for example, John says he has had four wives, but we only encounter three (Carmen, Liz, and his prison wife George). John the interviewee may be part of the problem here. He fills the screen with his charismatic presence, but often his musings fail to go much below the surface. He’s all bon mots, no deep thoughts.
Perhaps that’s why the parts of the film that feel the most fleshed out take a step back to survey some of the wider societal forces at play. The Dog is a documentary about a guy who robbed a bank, but it’s also an effective chronicler of life in 1970’s New York, and the nascent gay right’s movement just emerging there. Maybe activists who lived through the period would find the film’s section on this movement a bit simplistic, but I found it an effective - and affecting - primer on the mood and tone of the gay right’s movement in the early 1970’s.
The Dog is a documentary about a guy who robbed a bank, but it’s also an effective chronicler of life in 1970’s New York, and the nascent gay right’s movement just emerging there.
Other parts of the film work less well but get carried along by John’s outsized personality. His talkative, humorous demeanor is the film’s biggest asset as well as the thing holding it back. He cracks jokes, makes fun of himself, and just generally pulls the film along through sheer force of personality. He’s a figure that it’s hard to take your eyes off of, which probably helps explain why The Dog got made in the first place. Equally fascinating is John’s mother, who comes across as a crustier version of her son. As John narrates the story of his life, Theresa pops in occasionally to provide acid commentary and wring her hands about her son’s decisions. What’s interesting, though, and gives the film some emotional heft, is the clear bond between mother and son. Theresa dotes on her boy, and John responds in kind, with fawning admiration. Though she does not understand all of her son’s actions, or his lifestyle, she remains devoted to him till the end.
The movie’s last section details John’s attempts to benefit from his quasi-celebrity status. Since his release from prison, he has tried to benefit economically, off and on, from the story. He finds it hard to recapture that lightning in a bottle effect of the original robbery, though, and must live with the reality that, increasingly, no one knows who he is. He must content himself with trips down memory lane (and even those get more tenuous, as New York starts to transform around him - even the bank he robbed is no longer there). By the end the film works as a haunting treatise on the whims of celebrity. With a few lucky breaks, John Wojtowicz could have been a star; instead he’s just another motormouthed ex-con, with a slightly better tale than most.
The Dog gets carried over its rough patches thanks to the larger than life personality and life of its subject.