Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)


(Just a little warning: if you’re a kid and you’ve stumbled across this article, you might not want to read this. There are actually a couple adult issues in this one.)


     Recently, Sidney Lumet passed away, the great filmmaker who directed two movies that I’ve already talked about on this site: “Network” and “12 Angry Men”. But last month, I got to see one of his other well-known films for the first time, “Dog Day Afternoon”. Now, as far as I know, Lumet was not a Christian, but it’s funny how in his three greatest films (well, at least the ones that I’ve seen), there have been themes that I’ve taken from them that relate to my faith. And “Dog Day Afternoon”, even though it’s a very dark film, is no exception.

     The film is based on the true story of a bank robbery in Brooklyn in 1972 that pretty much went haywire. The robbers are Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) and his friend Sal (John Cazale), Vietnam veterans who have apparently already spent time in jail. Sal walks into the bank and quietly points a gun at the manager, while Sonny brings in a long white box containing another gun. Suddenly, Sonny shouts, and everyone working at the bank, all women except for a male guard and the male manager, are forced against the wall. But immediately, things start going wrong. The bank vault only contains $1100, because most of the money inside was recently picked up. One of the bank tellers has to go to the bathroom, and so Sonny is forced to calmly let all the tellers into the bathroom. The guard has an asthma attack, so other tellers have to attend to him. And then eventually, a police officer across the street spots Sonny, and the cops surround the bank.

     And it’s not only the cops that surround the bank, but eventually a crowd gathers around as well. Sonny and Sal now have a hostage situation on their hands. Sonny tells the cops that he is holding the employees hostage, and the lead detective Eugene Moretti (Charles Durning) now has to act as a negotiator. And the whole thing turns into a media frenzy. Sonny gets the crowd hyped up by yelling at the cops about police brutality, referencing their excessive force in the 1971 Attica prison riot, and he starts chanting “Attica!”, a now famous line. Eventually, Sonny makes his demands. He asks for a helicopter and a jet to take him and Sal out of the country to wherever they want to go. If Moretti gets those things for him, the hostages will be set free.

     Eventually, the police are sent out to get Sonny’s family. Well, it appears that Sonny has two wives. One of them, his first wife, is Angie (Susan Peretz), who knew that Sonny had been acting very strange and vulgar but was not sure why, especially not why he would go and rob a bank. But his second wife answers that question: a guy, Leon (Chris Sarandon), who reveals that he and Sonny were lovers and Sonny wanted to get Leon money for… an operation. Let’s just put it that way. So once Sonny is revealed as a bisexual, the media frenzy gets even crazier. Sonny is able to contact each of his wives, say last goodbyes (sort of… he yells a lot), and soon he, Sal, and the hostages have what they need to leave the bank. A limousine takes them to the airport, and very suddenly, Sonny is arrested and Sal is shot. And the movie ends, just like that. Oh well.

     What I really noticed about this film is that Sonny Wortzik, and Sal, for that matter, are living lives filled with contradictions. They are both Catholic, and Sonny tells the bank employees that from the start: “I’m a Catholic, and I don’t want to hurt anybody.” Yet Sonny leads a bank robbery, curses at pretty much everybody, and leads a homosexual lifestyle. I’m pretty sure that’s not what Catholics should do. And I don’t mean that to be funny, I really mean it: if you’re not afraid to talk about your religion, why are you doing things that go against it? There’s even a scene where Sal is sitting in a room where some of the bank tellers are smoking, and he tells them they shouldn’t be doing that. “Your body is the temple of the Lord”, he tells them. And one of them, Sylvia (Penelope Allen), sees the contradiction: “You rob a bank, but you keep your body pure. Is that it?”

     And one of the biggest challenges for a Christian is living a life of contradictions. Usually, that means saying you’re a Christian but not living like you are one. If I was to go around saying that I believed in Jesus, but I also went out and smoke, drank, and slept around, I would be living a life of contradictions. And Jesus rebuked this kind of lifestyle. Many times in the Gospels, He can be found rebuking the Pharisees, the hypocritical religious leaders of that time, for living a life of religion on the outside but not believing it in their hearts. In a long passage in Matthew 23, Jesus shouts at the Pharisees for their hypocrisy: “You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” (23:27-28)

     And by living a contradictory life, Sonny Wortzik eventually gets himself arrested and his accomplice shot in the head. The movie tells us that he was sentenced to 20 years in jail, and Leon did end up getting his operation. I wonder if they ever made amends. But my prayer for you, the reader (and definitely for myself), is that you will be strong in your walk with Jesus that you will not live a double life, but a life that shouts the name of Jesus in everything you do.

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