The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Dog

When it was released in theaters in 1975, Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon was an immediate sensation. Audiences flocked to it, critics raved, and the Academy Awards eventually honored it with six nominations, including Best Picture. (It lost to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.) The film retains its power, and remains a favorite of many, myself included. The documentary The Dog is about the guy who inspired Dog Day Afternoon, and whether or not you've seen the Al Pacino movie, this one is a thoroughly absorbing examination of a bizarre and possibly delusional personality.

John Wojtowicz seemed like an ordinary guy from the outside. He grew up loving baseball, joined the military, and got married to a woman named Carmen. There was more to him, though. While in the service, he woke up to a fellow soldier orally gratifying him (or so he claims), and this spurred an interest in men that surpassed his interest in women. He became heavily involved in the gay rights movement and, despite remaining married to Carmen, later began an intense relationship with a transsexual named Ernest Aron. Ernest, who went by the name Liz Eden, was despondent and wanted to have a sex change operation. To get the money, Wojtowicz and two other men robbed a Manhattan bank, taking everyone inside hostage and setting off a media firestorm. The plan made him a pseudo-celebrity, but also netted him six years in prison.

The Dog uses astonishing archival footage in telling Wojtowicz' story, including news reports filmed outside the scene of the robbery. (It's clear that Lumet strove for accuracy with Dog Day Afternoon.) Even more astonishing is the interview footage the film contains. Directors Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren began filming Wojtowicz in 2002, and those interviews allow him to narrate his own story. To say the man is colorful would be an understatement. He is brash, self-enchanted, arrogant, and prone to hyperbole yet somehow also sympathetic. Wojtowicz clearly never had any intention of hurting anyone, and although what he did is indefensible, we learn that he was anguished over Liz's depression and therefore committed to making the operation a reality. The combination of good intentions and wrongheaded actions is indicative of Wojtowicz' complexity.

So is his ability to talk himself into believing whatever is most self-serving. The Dog doesn't stop with Dog Day Afternoon. It goes on to tell what happened after the movie came out. While his life technically fell apart in many ways, Wojtowicz seemingly refused to acknowledge it. Caught up in the fame accorded to him by the big screen treatment of his robbery, he gladly played the star, even demanding the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania screen Dog Day Afternoon for his fellow inmates. Moreover, he used the movie's acclaim to convince himself that he was a hero who did the right thing. As we hear him speak, it's clear that he felt this way to the end. (Wojtowicz died in 2006.) The Dog, though its mixture of interview and reporting, shows how this man created a legend in his own mind.

Interviews with people who knew Wojtowicz at different stages of his life are accounted for, too, bringing a sense of balance to the story and contradicting its subject's self-created myth when need be. The documentary could have used a little more on what Wojtowicz thought of Dog Day Afternoon, but then again, maybe it doesn't need to. That film was really his justification for everything: his post-crime actions, his beliefs, his outlook on life. It stroked his ego, allowing him to view himself as he wanted to be viewed as a star, not as a failed criminal with an unsuccessful love life. Some might have called him a loser. He called himself a hero. Whatever you think of him, The Dog is one of the finest psychological portraits you're likely to see.

( 1/2 out of four)

Note: The Dog opens in theaters Aug. 8 and will be available on demand Aug. 15.

The Dog is unrated, but contains adult language, plus scenes and images of sexuality and nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.

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