• Alamo Drafthouse
  • John Wojtowicz, aka gay activist Littlejohn Basso

Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon, his second true-crime drama with Al Pacino after 1973's Serpico, stands tall among the motion pictures of the 1970s. It has little in common with the heist films to precede and follow in its wake, because it's more of a character study than an action movie. The story offers heart, humor, and unexpected twists and turns, and won Frank Pierson a deserving Oscar for best original screenplay. The film also marked the reunion of Pacino and John Cazale after The Godfather, in which Cazale played the ill-fated Fredo to Pacino's ruthless Michael Corleone.

Pierson, who penned Cool Hand Luke, drew from a true story, but it's reasonable to assume he made a lot of stuff up, because that's the way things usually work in Hollywood, but as this queasily compelling documentary about one-shot bank robber John Wojtowicz proves, he stuck pretty closely to the facts, though he narrowed his focus to one day in the life of his subject (Pierson also changed his name to Sonny Wortzik). Co-directors Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren, who spent a decade working on The Dog, which opens tomorrow at Grand Illusion Cinema, take on his entire contradictory life.

John, who was of Polish and Italian descent, grew up in Brooklyn as a well behaved, baseball-loving "Goldwater conservative." While serving in Vietnam, he had his first homosexual encounter—and liked it. A lot. After losing most of his unit to combat, he returned a liberal and married Carmen, the girl he left behind, but it was a short-lived disaster, so they split up, and he joined the Gay Activist Alliance. (Neither of their two children appear in the film.)

In terms of height, accent, and nervous energy: Pacino was the right man for the job.

John's mother, Terry, initially disapproved of his out-and-proud stance, but he was undeterred. Long before gay marriage became legal in New York, he protested in favor of it. In 1971, he fell in love with Ernie Aron, a statuesque, tough-talking sex worker who hadn't yet transitioned to transgender. After she started to live as a woman, they got married, but John didn't want her to have gender reassignment surgery, so they fought and she tried to kill herself. After she ended up in a mental ward, he decided to rob a bank to make things right. (Though she now went by the name Liz Eden, John continually refers to Liz as "he" and "Ernie.")

To psych themselves up for the robbery, John and his partner, Sal, went to see The Godfather beforehand. Could he have known that Pacino would end up playing him three years later? Doubtful, but afterward, he reveled in his fame, unlike Frank Serpico, who became reclusive after the release of Serpico. (Fun fact: my dad served on the commission that investigated his claims against the NYPD.)

In truth, John and Liz didn't live happily ever after, and her final years wouldn't be pretty. John's psychiatrist believes that Terry was "the great love of his life," rather than any of his four wives (he took two more after Liz). It's a reductive theory—that John could love men and women equally, but no one could compare to his mother—yet after watching this film: I believe it. John was almost heroic in his capacity to love and to be true to his sexual nature—he uses the word "pervert" as a badge of pride—but in all other respects, he was a little lost boy; stunted by Mom, by War, and by an on-screen persona he could never escape.

The Dog opens today—find Movie Times here and David Schmader's review here.