Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Dog Day Afternoon -- planning, pleasing and persons

Director: Sidney Lumet, 1975 (R) 

Bank robbery movies generally include masked robbers, gunshots, car chases and rapid action, with greed as the motivation for the heist. Not so with Dog Day Afternoon. Instead, Sidney Lumet (The Verdict) draws a character study of a bank robbery gone awry. And at the center is a character who wants to make people happy! Greed is replaced by a twisted form of altruism.

The actual robbery on which the film is based took place on August 22, 1972 in Brooklyn. John Wojtowicz held up the Chase Manhattan Bank on the corner of East Third Street and Avenue P, along with his partner in crime Salvatore Naturile. Here, the central character has become Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino, Heat) and his nervous sidekick is Sal (John Cazale, The Deer Hunter). And during the dog days of summer, one hot August afternoon, they enter the bank to steal its money.

When Sonny and Sal enter, along with a third robber, they come in street clothes – no masks or disguises. They have planned no further than the next step or two. When their driver decides he can’t go through with it, they are down to themselves, and the robbery is already in jeopardy. Since it is the end of the bank’s day, the only people present are the manager and a number of female tellers. But when the manager gets an unexpected phone call, Sonny comes to find out that the police have seen him and he is trapped. From then on, police descend on the bank and surround it, laying siege to it, effectively leaving Sonny and Sal with a hostage situation. Outside Det. Sgt Moretti (Charles Durning) takes charge and begins negotiations with Sonny.

The first theme of the film and the robbery is clear – planning, or lack of it. When undertaking a task or project, even one as immoral as a bank robbery, it is critical to plan effectively and mitigate and foreseeable risk. Jesus even talked about this to his disciples: “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?” (Lk. 14:28). Of course, this was in the context of counting the cost of becoming one of his disciples (Lk. 14:33), but the principle remains the same.

As the standoff continues, the tension escalates and the beauty of the film emerges: the depth of character and the quality of acting. Al Pacino delivers another outstanding performance, one that earned him an Oscar nomination, as a complex character driven by a motive we find out late in the film. And John Cazale is totally believable as a robber who is on over his head and is ready to kill to escape. Although the film only netted one Oscar, for best original screenplay, its acting and directing are first-rate. Lumet even allowed some of the scenes to be improvised, including Pacino’s famous cries of “Attica, Attica!” to the watching crowds, referring to the riots in the Attica Prison in 1971 in which 43 people were killed.

Amid the stress, Sonny finds himself acting as facilitator and problem solver, working out how to keep the women happy, when they need to take bathroom breaks or eat, etc. He is constantly complaining that he has to work to solve these problems. He is no vicious and violent thug; he is a man forced to rob for a deeper reason.

Trying to make people happy is a laudable ideal, but one at which people are destined to fail. You can never make everyone happy. It is a failing proposition. There will always be someone who you can’t please. That is why the apostle Paul tells the church at Thessalonika, “We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts” (1 Thess. 2:4) God is the one we should seek to please. As Paul says elsewhere, “If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10). We cannot focus solely on making people happy. It will lead us to an early grave brought on by stress and will leave us poor before God.

What makes this film most human, though, is the revelation that Sonny is gay. Despite the occasional homosexual slur, the focus is on Sonny as a person. He might be homosexual, but he is first and foremost a person, with a life and loves. His love life or gender preference may underscore the motives behind his actions but they are not placed in center stage.

Too often we focus on a person who is gay and decry his lifestyle, ignoring his personhood. He is viewed by the church as a sinner who must change. But we forget that we, too, are sinners in need of grace who have to change as well. We can become hypocrites as we look down on those whose sins are “worse than ours.” But the truth is we all stand guilty before God. Just as God condemns homosexuality (Rom. 1:27), so does he condemn heterosexual adultery (Exod. 20:14) and pre-marital sex (Gal. 5:19). The litany of sins of which most of us have committed one time or another goes on and on: “greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly” (Mark 7:22), to name but a few. We need to understand that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), whether homo or hetero sexual. The solution for us all is grace, for we ”are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3;24). This is something we must choose to receive, by following Jesus Christ: “for the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).

In these dog days of our own summer, let’s focus on planning, helping people, and treating others with respect, regardless of their color, sexual preference or religious affiliation.

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

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