Sidney Lumet’s Oscar-winning film Dog Day Afternoon tells the story of Sonny Wortzik, a man who robs a bank in Manhattan to pay for his lover’s sex reassignment surgery. The film is based on the true story of John Wojtowicz, a soldier-turned-criminal who became a local celebrity thanks to his outrageous character, his association with the Gay Liberation movement in its nascent stages, and most importantly, the events of that fateful day of the robbery. In The Dog, a new documentary about Wojtowicz by directors Francois Keraudren and Allison Berg, he is gratuitously granted an opportunity to extend his fifteen minutes of fame for another hour and a half.
Following the clichéd trajectory of most biographical documentaries, The Dog combines archival footage of John’s early life with talking head interviews with the man and those close to him. There’s an unusually large amount of footage available from his pre-fame life, and they give a fascinating glimpse into his early years. Wojtowicz is a strange character, with oscillating political views that range from war-mongering to anti-war activity, from pacifism to bank robbery.
Wojtowicz’s most defining characteristic, however, is his sexual appetite. He claims to have no other vices, and therefore channels all his energy through sexual expression, which really means he will fuck anything that moves. Wojtowicz married several times, but had affairs with countless men and women on the side. His first gay encounter occurred in the military, an experience that only served to broaden his sexual horizons. His affiliation with the gay activists of the New York scene in the early 1970s was mostly a result of his desire to sleep with as many men as possible. The clandestine gatherings were a gateway for him to meet new prospective partners. That, in essence, is where the film’s problematic nature stems from.
There is an unshakable sense that The Dog magnifies the significance of Wojtowicz’s story beyond the boundaries of his reality, and comfortably glosses over certain unpleasant facts. There’s never an indication that it can transcend its protagonist’s oddball personality to arrive at any meaningful conclusions. The majority of the film gives the impression of a slideshow of colorful antics assembled together to give one last hurrah to an obscure cult superstar who does not deserve this reevaluation.
His presence in the most monumental events of his time seems almost accidental, which is not of any fault of The Dog’s, but of Wojtowicz’s own accord. He doesn’t want anything more from the gay scene than abundant options for sex, but he attaches himself to the liberation movement nonetheless. He doesn’t want his partner, Liz Eden, to have a sex change, but he robs a bank purely out of love for her, a proclamation no one seems to fully believe. He was a loud goofball who happened to be at the right place at the right time, denounced by everyone associated with him – including gay activists and Liz – but himself and his mother.
It’s foolish to suggest that a documentary about an unlikable character will be equally unlikable, but The Dog’s rather narrow cinematic vision limits the enjoyment of the experience to the audience’s connection with the protagonist’s shenanigans. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Wojtowicz’s unending energy, the film remains consistently entertaining throughout. Wojtowicz is a live wire, and he carries the audience along with the same penchant for showmanship that greatly contributed to his popularity in the real world. There are moments of humor elsewhere, too, like a sequence in which a couple of eyewitnesses to his famous crime, two women (both called Fran) who were at a beauty salon, recount their experience to the camera. Their interview is reminiscent of the comically absurd conversation between Frances McDormand and the eyewitnesses/prostitutes in Fargo.
There are touching moments of intimacy in the film as well, particularly when we’re treated to Liz’s side of her relationship with John. Her story of abuse is painful and heartfelt, but lasts a regrettably short amount of time, before the film moves on to give its main star another chance to boastfully justify himself. When the curtain closes, one leaves the film wondering what the aim of this exercise is. As entertaining as The Dog is, it never quite convinces that its bullet point review of Wojtowicz’s sexual exploits is necessary, or that its subject merits the level of attention afforded to him. His questionable celebrity is already amply rewarded with Lumet’s enduring film.