Among the many surprises in The Dog, is that it makes you realize that Al Pacino’s charismatic performance as a hot-headed, romantic bank-robber in Sidney Lumet’s 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon was considerably toned down from real life. That movie, nominated for five Academy Awards, recounted the real-life 1972 incident where John Wojtowicz and another man held staff at a Brooklyn bank hostage for 14 hours. In the ensuing media circus, a throng of onlookers gathered. Wojtowicz tossed money to the crowd, ordered pizzas, mocked the cops and demanded hostage money for an unlikely reason: He wanted to take his transgender wife to Denmark for sex reassignment surgery.
Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren’s documentary about the real Wojtowicz, shot from 2002 to the subject’s death in 2006 and completed in the eight years since. Wojtowicz, a.k.a. “Dog” (his nickname during his six-year prison stint) serves as a tour guide of his life,with side trips into his complex family history, the theories of his psychiatrist and mother, and archival footage of his part in the New York gay liberation movement of the late 1960s and early ’70s. Wojtowicz might have looked a little like Pacino in his youth, but at the time of the filming, he’s a paunchy, white-haired man with missing teeth, but still has charisma and chutzpah to burn.
At its heart, The Dog is an investigation into the complex puzzle of identity, about a self-described “pervert” and incorrigible romantic, a Vietnam vet, a gay rights activist, a macho man and a mama’s boy, Wojtowicz is a homogenized mix of brash and pathetic, an original and a product of circumstance. While Wojtowicz’s shape-shifting character is the major source of fascination here, the archival footage, including with is terrifically effective in evoking the tumultuous era and occasionally providing a reality check to the Dog’s boastful version of his life.