Eccentric New Yorker John Wojtowicz was turned into an iconic figure when Al Pacino played the unorthodox bank robber in 1975’s “Dog Day Afternoon.” Director Sidney Lumet’s daylong saga, in which Wojtowicz took a bank hostage in the hopes of raising money for his transsexual lover’s sex change operation, hardly exaggerated the actual 1972 event, but only captured one piece of a much larger story. “The Dog,” directors Alison Berg and Frank Keraudren’s decade-plus effort to chronicle Wojtowicz in the years leading up to his death from cancer in 2006, capably fills in the gaps in his bizarre life.
Working as both an unofficial “Dog Day” sequel and unconventional overview of New York gay culture from the past 40 years, “The Dog” combines archival footage, still photographs, and testaments from many of those who knew Wojtowicz well to construct a vivid account of his strange trajectory. But “The Dog” derives its main strengths from its happily vulgar subject, the central narrator for the story both in flashbacks and in the later stages of his life as he looks back on his exploits. Sporting a daffy smirk and given to jokey asides, Wojtowicz might be an unreliable narrator when analyzing his behavior, but his aggressive stances accurately reflect the convictions he has regarding the justification of his crime.
Wojtowicz positions himself as the rare militant activist for gay rights. Pointing out that his ex-lover Ernie Aron — who later became “Liz Eden” — eventually received a sex change operation with Wojtowicz’s help, he triumphantly asserts, “I beat the fucking system.” That iconoclastic attitude carries “The Dog” through an occasionally scrappy but never less than compelling overview of the uneasiness through which gay activism was sublimated into the fabric of American society during the period of upheaval when Wojtowicz gained his fame.
But rather than turning Wojtowicz into a symbol, “The Dog” focuses on fleshing out his origin story, from his recollections of experiencing his first homosexual encounter during military service to his half-hazard association with the Gay Activists Alliance. The amount of time the directors have invested in the projected is reflected in a sizable amount of archival material that tracks Wojtowicz’s young adulthood, including footage from his West Village wedding with a post-op Aron and glimpses of the young man at protests. Wojtowicz’s assertiveness makes his instability clear: Falling into marital discord with Aron when he insists on getting a sex change, Wojtowicz’s decision to take criminal action for his lover’s sake makes sense in light of the modern day Wojtowicz’s attitude. Showing no remorse, his explanation for his motives suggests that a combination of wild hubris and emotional instability gave him the impression that the robbery was his only choice.
Yet once it gets there, the plot of “Dog Day” only takes up about half an hour of the 100-minute running time. “The Dog” really gets interesting once it moves past the failed heist to explore the years of fallout and how they impacted Wojtowicz’s life. Rendered a celebrity while still in prison, he faces life beyond bars with no discernible skills, and makes feeble attempts to exploit his fame with no specific plan. After the media frenzy dies down and Liz Eden faces a tragic fate, Wojtowicz remains adrift in his own delusions of grandeur, which is more less the state in which the filmmakers find him.
As sometimes happens with long-gestating non-fiction projects where the footage keeps piling up, “The Dog” contains more content than the filmmakers need for their story, and it sometimes suffers from attempts to stuff unnecessary details into an otherwise fascinating overview of Wojtowicz’s plight. Modern day glimpses of Wojtowicz hanging out with his retarded sibling, as well as cryptic insights from his mother, frequently interrupt an otherwise fluid account. Among the contemporary footage, however, one ingredient stands out: Wojtowicz provides a colorful tour to his past and present West Village haunts, showing how he’s both nostalgic for and trapped by history. “There’s sex and there’s love,” he asserts. “I’m a lover.” What that means in the context of Wojtowicz’s difficult journey is never entirely clear, but “The Dog” gives him the opportunity to keep messing with his curious mythology from beyond the grave.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, “The Dog” will likely receive further festival play and receive strong reactions. A midsize distributor should be able to capitalize on its unique story with a VOD release and can expect modest theatrical returns for a very limited release if the “Dog Day Afternoon” hook still has currency for some moviegoers.