This review was originally published during the New York Film Festival on October 1, 2013. It is being reposted now that the film is opening in theaters.
John Wojtowicz was a terrible person. They say one should not speak ill of the dead, but I think we can make an exception for this particular celebrity criminal. Why? Because he lives on in a new documentary by Allison Berg and François Keraudren, almost entirely on his own terms. The Dog is first and foremost a character study, brimming with interview footage of Wojtowicz and his adoring mother, Terry Basso. He’s a self-identifying “pervert” and she loves him anyway, with classic Sicilian devotion. And if it weren’t for all of the horrible things he did in his life, Berg and Keraudren’s charming portrait of mother and son might actually work.
Wojtowicz is famous for one crime in particular, the 1972 bank robbery that became Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon. Wojtowicz and his friend Sal Naturale robbed a Chase Manhattan branch in Gravesend, Brooklyn in order to pay for the sex reassignment surgery of Wojtowicz’s second wife, Liz Eden. They took hostages, boisterously negotiated with the cops outside, ordered pizza and tried arranging a flight out of the country. Eventually Naturale was shot and killed by law enforcement, and Wojtowicz was arrested and sent to prison on a 20 year sentence. Three years later, selling the rights to his story would finally pay for Eden’s surgery and Dog Day Afternoon would make him famous.
Berg and Keraudren make a point of telling this story in detail, but it’s not their only concern. They also explore Wojtowicz’s childhood, his involvement with the early stages of the Gay Liberation movement, his time in prison, his relationship with his mother and disabled brother and his final years of sickness leading to his death in 2006. Most of this is told through interviews with Wojtowicz himself, who is not only allowed to be the primary voice in his own story, but everyone else’s as well. This is a problem for a number of reasons, not least of which being that he comes across as a self-satisfied, willfully ignorant pig. Basso, meanwhile, contributes almost as much as her son, and spends most of her time either defending or explaining away his behavior.
Now, there are plenty of great documentaries about despicable people, but they become great because of the way they present and contextualize their subjects. Berg and Keraudren essentially just let Wojtowicz run the show. They are neither interested in what his fame says about society, nor the lives of people around him. Wojtowicz and Naturale had another accomplice, Robert Westenberg, who ran out of the bank before they started. The night before the big robbery they shared a hotel room, and Wojtowicz essentially bullied and raped Westenberg. He tells this story himself as if it were a joke, embellished by an odd and unsettling pride. Berg and Keraudren leave it at that.
This is only exacerbated when Wojtowicz speaks fondly of the Gay Liberation movement. The way he talks about it, the only reason he took an interest was in the opportunity to meet and screw as many men as possible (at this point he is still married to his first wife, Carmen Bifulco, with whom he had two children). This is complicated. Obviously for a lot of people Gay Liberation was about sex. Sex is the reason Gay Liberation happened in the first place, it is why gay people are excluded from society and it is what brought them together. However, Wojtowicz has no interest in community at all, and it clearly irked a whole lot of his activist friends. His involvement is entirely selfish, a parody of traditionally dehumanizing machismo with a different set of victims. Thankfully, some of his colleagues do make it into the film to contextualize his story, but Berg and Keraudren still focus on the most sympathetic man in the group.
Not interviewed is Eden herself, the ostensible love of Wojtowicz’s life and the woman for whom he says he robbed the bank. She died of AIDS in 1987. Berg and Keraudren can’t talk to her, so her absence is more of a tragedy than an oversight. The Dog does explain that she left Wojtowicz shortly after their marriage, and that the robbery was partly conceived as a way to win her back. In a way, this makes the act look even more heroic.
What is not admirable is the way that Wojtowicz, decades later, still refused to take her seriously. To him she was always Ernie, a man who wanted a vagina for some unfathomable reason. It is not Berg and Keraudren’s responsibility to harass their subject about his pigheadedness, but they could have included more of her story or looked at the way her story affected perceptions of the transgender community.
Yet Eden’s story is only one of a number of important points obscured by The Dog. Wojtowicz’s return to prison after breaking parole in 1987 doesn’t make the cut, for example. Only a single hostage from the 1972 robbery is interviewed, and it looks as if Berg and Keraudren ran into her by accident when making a nostalgia trip to the old Chase Manhattan branch. Even less attention is paid to Naturale, who got killed as a result of Wojtowicz’s crazy scheme. There are so many stories sitting just off-screen, all of them pushed off by the pompous storytelling of a single sociopath.
It can be hard to make a documentary about a criminal, especially one with such a strong personality. There are many, many ways to succeed. Letting your subject steer the ship is not one of them.
The Dog is now playing in theaters.