When it comes to the foolish and dangerous crime of bank robbery, Hollywood is a bad influence.
In movieland, bank robbers are usually successful and they always look cool doing it. Ben Affleck gets away with several bank heists in his movie “The Town,” and he doesn’t even seem particularly smart.
I don’t know the statistics, but I’m guessing that most bank robbers end up imprisoned and/or shot.
“Dog Day Afternoon” is a remarkably realistic film about a pair of unprepared, uncool bank robbers.
Al Pacino gives his all-time greatest performance as stressed-out bisexual bigamist Sonny Wortzik. Sonny is married legally to a woman he doesn’t like. And he’s kind-of married to his transgender partner Leon.
Sonny knows that he has been a lousy husband to Leon and he wants to make it up to him with a grand gesture: stealing $2500 to pay for Leon’s sex change operation.
One August afternoon, Sonny and his pal Sal (John Cazale) slip into First Brooklyn Savings Bank with two guns, a duffel bag, and a dream.
Everything goes wrong. The robbery quickly devolves into a tense hostage negotiation. Sal is a useless dimwit. “Is there a special country where you want to go?” Sonny asks. “Wyoming,” Sal states.
The problem is, Sonny is nearly as dense. He thinks he’s a mastermind, but every frantic decision he makes is wrong.
“Dog Day Afternoon” still feels fresh and relevant. Director Sidney Lumet explores how the hostages begin to sympathize with their captors and how the irresponsible media tries to turn the robbers into rock stars.
But Lumet and Pacino don’t fall into the trap of painting Sonny as a good guy or even an anti-hero. He’s a self-important loser and a horrendous husband to both of his spouses.
Lumet’s take on the state of law enforcement in America is remarkably reasonable and balanced.
On one hand, the film makes it clear that New York City would explode into violent anarchy without the police.
On the other hand, the number of armed cops and police snipers who show up is ridiculous overkill and serves to escalate the crisis. When Sonny releases a hostage, overzealous cops rough him up and handcuff him because he’s a black male.
The film asks the important question of what good the FBI does since the NYPD was keeping the peace just fine on their own. It’s infuriating to me that “Defund the Police” is a popular slogan but the FBI – which could be completely shut down tomorrow – gets off scot free.
“Dog Day Afternoon” is a smart, funny, insightful drama. My favorite thing about it is that every character – cop, robber, and hostage alike – is sympathetic and relatable. We don’t like Sonny and we don’t root for him, but we always feel for him. This is a movie made with love for humanity.
On top of everything else, the film has an important message: robbing the bank is a really bad idea. If everyone in America were forced to watch “Dog Day Afternoon,” financial institutions wouldn’t need guards anymore.
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