August 22nd, 1972 was just another hot summer day in New York City, at least until two men walked into a Brooklyn branch of Chase bank and made a somewhat incompetent attempt to rob it. John “The Dog” Wojtowicz and Salvatore Naturale were the two would-be robbers, and while you probably don’t recognize their names you’re most likely familiar with their exploits that day. The event — and the botched robbery most definitely became an event complete with hostages, intense media coverage and crowds of cops and civilians — inspired the Al Pacino-led film Dog Day Afternoon just a few years later.
Naturale was killed by police as the situation came to a frenzied and suspenseful conclusion, and Wojtowicz went to jail, but The Dog’s story continued to grow well past his eventual release. By his own account, he had attempted the robbery so that his male lover could afford a sex change operation. That detail was disputed by none other than the lover himself, Ernest Aron, but by then the “story” of The Dog was already rolling and impossible to stop.
Co-directors Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren followed Wojtowicz for a decade, speaking with him — or more accurately, letting him talk — and those in his life in an attempt to capture the truth and character of the man. There’s an abundance of the latter in The Dog, but it’s anyone’s guess how much of the former is on display. Wojtowicz enjoys not only the sound of his own voice but also the effect his words have on those around him, and veracity seems far less important to him than his efforts to stretch fifteen minutes of fame across a lifetime.
Present day interviews (from 1996 to late 2005) make up the bulk of the film, but there are also numerous clips from period news reports, TV shows and home video recordings highlighting Wojtowicz’s life and actions at the cultural effect he had along the way. Taken on their own detailed merits he’s a guy who happened to be involved — directly or tangentially — with some memorable historical events. He went to Vietnam as a staunch Republican, but between his first sexual encounter with a man and the realization that soldiers were dying for the satisfaction of politicians he returned a changed man. Openly bisexual, he was at the forefront of the LGBT movement, took part in one of New York City’s first gay weddings and was associated with events leading up to the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village. And of course he was portrayed in an Academy Award-winning film by Al Pacino.
But he’s also an incredible asshole.
The film will, at first, have you thinking that label is a bit too harsh. Wojtowicz is an amusing guy after all, and even though he’s self-effacing about being a pervert with a small penis he comes across initially as little more than a fun-loving loud-mouth. But the more he talks — and the more and the more and the more — it comes clear that he loves himself something fierce and believes that the rest of us should too. His braggadocio is endless and also ignorant of how his actions and words have hurt others.
He has no empathy for the hostages he held at gunpoint during the robbery — a fact driven home in archival footage of him standing outside the bank post-prison with a t-shirt saying “I robbed this bank” while one of the tellers recounts her dueling disgust and fearful memories of the ordeal — and his treatment of supposed love ones fares no better. Death threats aimed at Aron and sexual exploits that sound dangerously close to rape pass his smiling lips as easily as do directions to the zoo.
But as it is with most of his utterances it’s unclear how much of it falls under the category of truth. Is he simply making himself sound bigger, tougher and better than he is, or has he actually come to believe his own legend?
The lovers in his life seem closer to reality than he does, and interviews old and new reveal a man who probably wouldn’t be recognizable to Wojtowicz’s own eyes. His first wife — the lone female one — and one of the three male brides share their memories, and as with many things in The Dog’s life they don’t always jibe with his version. Curiously, they sometimes make him look better.
Ultimately, the greatest female presence — and arguably his greatest victim — in his life and in the film is his mom, Terry. Occasionally overflowing with attitude, the interview segments with her showcase a woman who stuck with him through it all, sacrificing her own life to try and hold his together. It was a lifelong act of selflessness that in a sense makes her his longest-held hostage, but regardless of our opinion on the situation her love for him remains the film’s clearest truth.
The Dog is an entertaining and engaging character piece. It fills some gaps in a pop culture story, gaps we didn’t even know needed filling, but its main effect is to shine a light on a man who fears the darkness.
The Upside: Wojtowicz is charismatic despite his intense unlikeability; it’s an occasionally fascinating look at a warped American dream
The Downside: Ultimately not as deep or interesting a story as Wojtowicz or even the filmmakers believe
On the Side: Aron, who now goes by Liz Eden, eventually got that sex change operation thanks to money from Warner Bros. for the film rights.