John Wojtowicz, the American bank robber who inspired the film Dog Day Afternoon, renders Rupert Pupkin’s misadventures banal by comparison. A former Chase Manhattan Bank teller who held up a Brooklyn branch in a hostage situation for 14 hours in the summer of 1972, Wojtowicz cut a disenfranchised-rebel pose to portions of the media, as he clearly wanted to be seen as a quixotic dreamer-warrior with appetites more advanced than his instincts. A lapsed Republican, Vietnam veteran, and chronically broke married man, as well as an out bisexual who also claimed to have married three or four men in addition to his wife Carmen, Wojtowicz certainly achieved one of the more prized contemporary incarnations of the much-discussed and frequently ill-defined American dream: the infuriated have not who briefly reinvented himself as a tabloid curiosity.
Elegantly composed of surprisingly intimate interviews and vivid, frightening 1970s news footage, The Dog dutifully relates most of Wojtowicz’s life story, though it’s informed with a subtle but disquieting subtext that insists on the pitfalls of allowing ideology to steer you away from common sense. Sure, Wojtowicz can be read in certain, extraordinarily pliable, contexts as a gay-rights crusader (he disputably claims to have robbed the bank for lover Ernest Aron’s sex-reassignment surgery, which was later purchased from the money made from selling his life story to Warner Bros.), or even simply as a working-class guy who snapped and took society’s reigns in his own hands. But Wojtowicz’s still a bank robber who took people hostage at gun point and who got a co-conspirator, Salvatore Naturale, killed. Sometimes a cigar’s just a cigar, and Wojtowicz’s a crook with a lurid story that luckily (for him) inadvertently tapped a series of infected social pressure points. People took to Wojtowicz’s defense because he could readily play whichever martyr they personally required.
Directors Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren structure the film so that you’re initially amused by Wojtowicz’s bravado. The interviews with the man, forceful and eccentric, impressively testify to a life lived on its own terms. But the filmmakers, who shot The Dog over the last 10 years of Wojtowicz’s life, allow their subject to subsequently talk himself out of much of the affection that you’re likely to develop for him. Crazy, abusive (he occasionally describes sexual encounters that sound queasily close to rape, though that could be the bravado talking), and monumentally self-absorbed, he’s a literally glorified stalker who sent Ernest death threats and who reaches a particular tasteless, desperate low point when he gets out of jail and haunts the bank he tried to rob, posing for pictures on the premises with a T-shirt that says “I robbed this bank.” Wojtowicz’s fame embodies a conservative’s worst nightmare of unthinking permissibility, and, in this case, such outrage is justifiable.
The Dog’s real hero is Terry, John’s mother, who also speaks at length with the filmmakers. At first, she strikes you as a caricature of the immigrant mom with rigidly traditional values that bespeak of settling down, working, minding God, and so forth, and that, to a large extent, is exactly who she is. But underneath that crusty demeanor is an extraordinarily brave and generous woman who stood by her son through his coming out after his return from Vietnam, through the bank robbery and its aftermath, and through all the draining controversies and shenanigans that would characterize the decades to follow. Terry embodies the heart of what the phrase “the American dream” should ideally mean: tolerance, flexibility, empathy, and humanity, in place of increasingly elaborate permutations of debauched narcissism.