Based on the true story of a bank robbery gone bad in 1972 (“30% true” the actual perpetrator, Sonny Wojtowicz claimed), Dog Day Afternoon is, like Network, one of Sidney Lumet's best films an a fine evocation of media paranoia in the 70's. Taking place during one afternoon and evening during a heist-turned-hostage situation, the film unfolds as the heat builds and the would-be robbers, Sonny and Sal, grow more desperate.
This is my favorite of Al Pacino's performances, and it falls before the Pacino-playing-Pacino era. Sonny is a complicated character, a Vietnam vet who can't get a job, a man with a high-running temper who doesn't really seem to want to hurt anyone, a “misfit” who responds surprisingly well to anyone who pays him attention. Early in the film, the head teller turns on him and asks if he had any kind of plan at all, or just did this on a whim. He falls silent, like a chastised boy.
The teller has a point, and illustrates one of the great things about this movie; the characters emerge as their own people, quirky but not too quirky to be believed. I find Sonny's relationship with the police detective assigned to the situation, played by Charles Durning, to be oddly affecting. Sal, played by John Cazale, is also arresting and reminds me what a pity it was he wasn't around longer. These performances are in keeping with the film, as well, which feels very “real” without going too far in the pseudo-documentary direction and thereby drawing attention to itself. The camera movements are many, but not invasive, and the locations and atmosphere consistently depicted. Larger themes are mentioned without being the point of the film, and this nearly real-time event has been used to illustrate the contradictions of one life without seeming to draw any conclusions about it. Sonny is likable even though he's clearly got problems and you probably don't want to be involved with him, and his problems are never traced back to any one aspect of his character or past. (Criticism has been leveled at the film for sensationalizing certain aspects of the case, and while I can see that in the larger context of Hollywood in the 70s, I don't feel that way about the film's text viewed on its own.)
Dog Day Afternoon is a surprising film in the best way; it takes a worn premise and surprises you without throwing you out of its own world. It's neat without being pat, and its topical without being overly self-conscious of that fact. The overall consistency of tone, acting, and camerawork, too, mark it as a classic and it's especially interesting when viewed in conjunction with Network, a more self-conscious treatment of themes touched upon in this film.