The truth is stranger than fiction, and Dog Day Afternoon proves that better than most movies in history. Its story is one that could have conceivably been tossed out by an executive for seeming too preposterous, but it is in fact based on real events, and the 2014 documentary The Dog seeks to add context and an extra layer of truth to what Sidney Lumet and company presented four decades earlier.
If you've watched Dog Day Afternoon or read any of my colleagues' excellent coverage of the film over the last few days, you know the bullet points. Sonny Wortzik and Sal Naturale attempt to rob a bank. It goes awry almost immediately, and they're forced to take hostages at gunpoint. The money is meant for the gender reassignment surgery of Sonny's wife, and his story and extraordinary charisma quickly lead to the crowd outside the bank becoming sympathetic to his cause.
In reality, Sonny Wortzik was John Wojtowicz, and directors Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren bring this man—"the dog" as it were—to life. They do so, however, with the instinct of journalists first and filmmakers second. Like so many—too many—non-fiction films, The Dog relies on one-on-one interviews between filmmaker and subject. It's fine and serves a purpose—give Wojtowicz a platform to tell his own story—but The Dog works because that story is fascinating and layered and brilliant more so than the visual method through which it unfolds.
It's important to give Wojtowicz this platform because his story says so much about human sexuality, myth making, and even mental illness—things that Dog Day Afternoon, for all its exceptional qualities doesn't tackle with the same vigor.
Wojtowicz somewhat famously wrote a letter to The New York Times from prison in which he said of the film, "I felt the movie was in essence a piece of garbage. It did not show the whole truth, and the little it did show was constantly twisted and distorted."
What's interesting, then, is that he'd adopt the nickname "The Dog" upon his re-entry into society. It's an accurate one to be sure. Wojtowicz seems to relish his many sexual conquests over the years even at the emotional expense of so many in his life. But his rejection of the film on the basis of its veracity and his acceptance of the fame that accompanied it speak to an egomania that would make our President-elect blush. It’s not like the Wojtowicz that’s presented here isn’t an affable, likeable guy. It’s that we the viewers should know better.
Maybe it’s because Wojtowicz is telling this story from the grave that most of what he did wrong feels forgivable. The man passed away in 2006, so The Dog is a posthumous chance to at least present a clear case as to the man’s legal guilt but human innocence. In other words, he argues, via this film, that he did a wrong thing for the right reasons.
Ultimately, that’s where Dog Day Afternoon finds its power, and that through line makes The Dog an objectively compelling piece of documentary cinema, but one that carries extra weight and resonance for cinephiles and fans of Lumet’s astonishing piece of work.