In 1975’s Dog Day Afternoon, Al Pacino portrayed slightly unhinged bank robber turned folk hero Sonny Wortzik, whose first and only heist was part of a quest to get money for sex-reassignment surgery for his husband. The whole Brooklyn neighborhood turned out to watch as Wortzik argued with police, demanded pizza for his hostages, and insisted that his lover be allowed to come visit him. It ended with his bank-robbing partner dead and Wortzik sentenced to 20 years in jail. The Dog, a documentary about the real-life Wortzik—actual name: John Wojtowicz—adds some context to that afternoon which, as it turns out, seems like a very logical place for this gleefully cocky loudmouth to have ended up.
In The Dog, Wojtowicz is largely allowed to tell his own story: The filmmakers clearly spent a lot of time with him later in his life, and he’s defined by frankness. He claims at the outset to have four wives and 23 girlfriends who all know each other. He says that everything he’s done has been driven by a compulsion to have sex. He cheerfully claims the nickname “Little John” because “my prick is small!” His downfall begins, though, when he falls madly in love with Ernest Aron. The two are part of a burgeoning gay-rights scene in New York City; The Dog makes great use of contemporaneous footage, including home video of Wojtowicz and Aron’s marriage, which is illegal at the time both because it’s between two men and because Wojtowicz is already married.
Those wild days, which Wojtowicz is delighted to recount in detail, eventually led him to a Chase Manhattan branch and a 14-hour stand-off with police. And though it also led to jail—where he was beaten and raped—he speaks of the crime in The Dog with a sociopathic sense of pride. (“I’m the gay Babe Ruth,” he claims. “I beat the system!”) In the years after his release from prison—his time served was a shockingly short five years, all things considered—Wojtowicz tried to capitalize on his notoriety, but without much success. He lived with his doting mother, who’s frank and funny enough to deserve a documentary of her own, until his death from cancer in 2006.
As a portrait of a life lived strangely—and if you asked its subject, perfectly, with no regrets—The Dog is charming. Still, there’s a nagging sense of darkness and obsessiveness here that’s only hinted at, particularly in a TV interview in which Wojtowicz admits that he seriously considered murdering Aron on one occasion. Then again, maybe that’s the point. Wojtowicz guilelessly embraces his own desires. He greets whatever comes at him with a laugh and a self-righteous sense of entitlement that’s kind of infectious when it’s not completely insane. That makes him the ideal candidate for a documentary. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that he also once robbed a bank in order to get sex-change money for his not-legal husband.