I often wonder how future historians will write about this time. Broadly, how will they will talk about Americans in a post-9/11 world and more specifically, about The Great Recession and the economic and social unrest it left in its wake? If you ever need proof you’re living in an historically significant time, living through an event called “The Great Recession” should give you what you need.
We tend to think of history as linear: we make little bits of progress at a time, every now and again large leaps of progress, and we keep moving on. Progress piled on top of progress, bringing us ever higher. That’s not really how it works, though. We make progress, then if enough people freak out about the change that progress brings we take a few steps backwards. Sometimes those steps are large.
The central issues in the film Dog Day Afternoon are economic inequality, police aggression, and gay and transgender rights. Sound familiar?
When Sidney Lumet directed Dog Day Afternoon, in the mid-seventies, I wonder if he expected that the issues in the movie would still be critical forty years later. That the progress we were making at that time would be slowed down by people who are terrified of losing their inherent privilege. That those without privilege would still be struggling against those with too much of it.
In the late summer of 1967, John Wojtowicz and and Salvatore Naturale held up a bank in Brooklyn. Wojtowicz intended to rob the bank in order to obtain money to pay for sex reassignment surgery for his pre-operative transgender wife, Elizabeth Eden. A few years later, the events were retold in Dog Day Afternoon.
In the film, Sonny [the character based on Wojtowicz] incites the crowd that has gathered outside the bank with chants of “Attica! Attica!” This is during a tense scene in which Sonny steps out of the bank to talk with the police detective, who is utterly powerless to calm his gun-happy officers. The detective repeatedly tells officers to back away from Sonny, and Sonny yells, “He wants to kill me so bad he can taste it!” He then starts screaming “Attica! Attica!” and the crowd immediately responds by cheering and chanting. He is referring to the Attica Prison riot, during which over 2,000 inmates took over Attica Correctional Facility in 1971. After the riot was over, 43 people were dead, 33 of them inmates. Attica became an anti-authoritarian rallying cry. The way the crowd responds, immediately turning their favor on Sonny and against the police, speaks to an unrest. This was the late 1960s, when America was experiencing a tension between minorities and authority figures. A tension very similar to what we are experiencing today. And while race is not mentioned explicitly in this scene, it was a central part of the Attica riot.
Shortly after this scene, Sonny is interviewed by a television reporter over the phone, and the interviewer asks him why he is robbing a bank. Sonny seems confused and impatiently explains he is robbing it because there is money there. The conversation turns to employment options, and Sonny points out the lack of gainful employment. The is a recurring issue throughout the movie—it is damn hard to make a living in an economy that doesn’t value everyone’s contributions.
And, finally, the reason Sonny is robbing a bank, the reason he needs the money there, is to pay for Leon’s [the character based on Eden, played by Christopher Sarandon] sex reassignment surgery. This is an unexpected twist in the film, but it is based in fact. I was relieved to find out later that Wojtowicz was able to pay for her surgery with what he was paid for the rights to the story.
Dog Day Afternoon is about an event that was a culmination of economic and social inequalities. A totally nonsensical act from someone who wanted to do the right thing, but couldn’t figure out how to do it. The tensions in the film and the concerns of the protagonist echo what many of us feel today, and what we see in the news today. No one has recently robbed a bank to pay for an unnecessarily expensive but totally reasonable procedure, but it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination to conceive of it.
I have to admit to not feeling very optimistic about the world lately. Like many others, I’m experiencing a post-election blues, and re-watching Dog Day Afternoon brought it to center for me. We should be past this, but that the events in this movie feel so close, so familiar, show that we are not. And I’m not sure how much longer it will be before we are if we keep taking steps backwards.
Here is what you'll see this week during our coverage of Dog Day Afternoon:
- A description of the film's place in counter-culture cinema
- A scene analysis of a pivotal scene during the bank heist
- Related Review of 2013 documentary on Wojtowicz, The Dog
- Our stream recommendations of films with prominent transgender characters
- And more!