The Dog is a fascinating documentary that examines the life and legacy of John Wojtowicz, the infamous bank robber whose failed attempt at robbing a Chase Manhattan branch in order to fund his husband’s sex-change operation devolved into an unfortunate hostage situation and media frenzy, eventually providing inspiration for the Al Pacino film Dog Day Afternoon. Filmmakers Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren worked over the course of ten years to pull together rare archival footage as well as dozens of interviews with John and those closest to him throughout his life, in an attempt to paint a colourful picture of the arrogant and impulsive romantic whose moment of desperation stole the entire nation’s attention for a single day.
Berg and Keraudren come across as flies on the wall much of the time, allowing an aging and increasingly ill Wojtowicz to take centre-stage and direct many of his own interviews – something “the dog” clearly relishes. And yet for every bragging one-liner that he produces in his detailed retelling of the events of his life, we begin to see more and more clearly the sadness that exists at the heart of his story. He was an asshole, surely, but he was also the product of a series of complex emotional experiences, colliding against the backdrop of an evolving social consciousness towards homosexuality in 1970s New York. All of this eventually came to a boiling point in the form of a poorly-planned and sloppily-executed act of crime that will forever remain a unique footnote in American history, and which would tragically come to define John’s entire existence from that point on.
You may, however, find yourself wondering why Wojtowicz deserves a film about his life. Why glorify a man who became famous for committing a horrible crime? Regardless of his motives, he was still holding innocent lives in the balance that day – men and women who could just as easily have died if things had gone slightly differently. Not to mention, the situation did result in the death of John’s partner in crime, Salvatore Naturale, who was only 18 when he was gunned down by the FBI. Why give this self-proclaimed “dog” the satisfaction of a masturbatory swan song years after his death? The truth is, quite simply, that he provides an enthralling character study, and one that is undoubtedly worthy of 100-minutes of your time. With The Dog, Berg and Keraudren demonstrate a profound understanding of an exceedingly difficult and abrasive subject, slicing beneath the surface of his boastful exterior to ultimately uncover a more fragile and poignant message about love, loss, and the inevitable passing of time.
4 / 5 S T A R S
The Dog is currently screening at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema until August 21st. Showtimes and info available here.