By Linc Leifeste | August 7, 2014
Directors: Allison Berg, Frank Keraudren
If you’ve seen Dog Day Afternoon, you have a sense of just what an oddball John Wojtowicz was. But only a sense. Brilliantly portrayed by Al Pacino in the 1975 film, Wojtowicz’s motivation and character in the film can be a tough nut to crack. At times Wojtowicz comes across as a hapless and relatively harmless eccentric, motivated to rob a Chase Manhattan bank out of love and desperation, seeing it as his only way to finance a sex change operation for his second “wife,” Ernie. Ernie desperately wanted to become a woman and eventually would, becoming Liz Eden, thanks not directly to Wojtowicz’s bungled robbery attempt but instead to money from Sidney Lumet’s film. But it’s hard to effectively argue that Wojtowicz was a harmless eccentric to those bank employees who had to suffer though a terrifying hostage ordeal or to his partner in crime, Sal Naturale, who wound up being shot dead during their failed escape attempt.
What The Dog also makes clear is that Wojtowicz’s back-story helps complicate his actions on that August, 1972 day. A Vietnam veteran and gay man who was involved with the Gay Activist Alliance shortly after the Stonewall Riots, on the surface it’s hard not to sympathize with his frustrations and anger bubbling over into a violent act. Add in his supposed sex-change motivation, his theatrical and colorful interactions with law enforcement during the hostage situation, and you’ve got a potent stew for his assignation as some kind of misguided folk hero, giving the finger to the establishment. And you’ve also got a seemingly great subject for an in-depth documentary, one that digs much deeper than Wojtowicz’s apparently defining moment, captured in Dog Day Afternoon, and helps to give context to his actions by shining a light on the man beneath the brazen actions of that day.
Directors Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren surely consider Wojtowicz a worthwhile subject of study, having spent over a decade working on The Dog. And during their time with him they seem to have grown truly fond of their subject, giving him the majority of screen time, in the process allowing him to tell his own story sympathetically, if not always reliably. Fair enough, I guess, as it is his own story, even if his opinionated, sarcastic, joyously vulgar, outspoken act, while hard to look away from, does grow tired well before the film’s 100 minute running time comes to an end. It should be pointed out that while he’s given free reign to tell his own story, there are a number of people who aren’t around to present their version of things, people who are caught up as little more than pawns in Wojtowicz’s self-aggrandizement, people like Liz Eden and Sal Naturale.
I get the sense that the directors may have been ultimately overwhelmed by their subject matter, allowing themselves to spend too much time with their subject and recording too much footage to be able to effectively produce a focused final product. Footage of Wojtowicz spending time with his mentally impaired brother interrupt the flow of the film and don’t add to the story and Wojtowicz’s mother is given too much screen time. An odd duck herself, it seems she maintained a relationship with her son up though his death, but sadly the film never shows any footage of the two interacting. Flawed but fascinating, The Dog is a must see for fans of Dog Day Afternoon or those with an interest in 70’s New York, and particularly it’s gay rights movement, but I’m not sure that there’s much purpose in giving a blowhard like Wojtowicz a chance to further attempt to mythologize himself from beyond the grave. Sometimes maybe it’s best to just let sleeping dogs lie.