Based On A True Story

Based On A True Story


Reviewed by: Themroc

Sidney Lumet’s film Dog Day Afternoon was released in 1975. It was written by Frank Pierson (who won an Oscar for his screenplay) and starred Al Pacino, John Cazale and Charles Durning. Based on actual events, it told the story of an abortive bank robbery committed in the summer of 1972 when a gay (but married) ex-soldier named John Hojtowitz (renamed Sonny in the film) came up with the brilliant idea of robbing the Chase Manhattan Bank in Brooklyn as a means of paying for his lover’s sex change operation. When a combination of bad luck and bad planning led to the police being alerted, Hojtowitz and his accomplice Sal found themselves embroiled in a hostage situation which resulted in a 14 hour stand-off with police, the FBI and a huge media circus.

A devoted fan of Lumet’s film, Dutch film-maker Walter Stokman’s stated aim in making this documentary was to “reclaim the truth” from the actors and return it to their real-life counterparts. However, rather than make a straight documentary about the events themselves, Stokman (who also narrates) initially attempts an investigation into the process of adaptation.

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To this end he has managed to unearth some fascinating stills and archive footage. The interviews with surviving hostages, FBI agents and even Hojtowitz’s long-suffering ex-wife (a dead ringer for the actress who played her) are interesting in so far as they go. This approach, however, is not without its drawbacks. For a start, there is a danger that it simply becomes a film made by a fan for other fans. Certainly there are large holes in Stokman’s narrative regarding chronology and motivation that require a prior knowledge of Lumet’s film to plug the gaps. This seems rather unwise, particularly given that Stokman opens his own film with a montage of man-in-the-street interviewees revealing how few people remember the movie clearly, if at all.

The narrow focus, combined with Stokman’s easy-going, informal narration, also mean that the documentary is neither gripping nor even particularly informative. If I hadn’t seen Dog Day Afternoon, I get the distinct impression that Stokman’s account of its events would leave me wondering why on earth anyone thought they were worth dramatising in the first place. His film lacks either the claustrophobic tension Dog Day Afternoon achieves as a character drama, or the chilling intensity attained by the more journalistic approach adopted by a documentary like, say, One Day In September.

The other problem is that by attempting to keep the focus on the events as Lumet and Pierson chose to dramatise them, Stokman makes his own film heavily dependent upon the co-operation of John Hojtowitz. Hojtowitz’s testimony is therefore crucial in establishing, not just the chain of events, but the way in which he as the protagonist of both narratives, responded to what was happening – in other words, the emotional truth of the story: what he felt, thought and so on as the siege unfolded.

The Hojtowitz we see in archive footage interviewed from inside his prison cell in 1975 comes across as a self-effacing and softly-spoken man. However, unfortunately for Stokman, the Hojtowitz who emerged from prison was a bitter, mercurial, deluded, unreliable, manipulative bully. He is also greedy. Not only do his self-aggrandising recollections differ so sharply from those of other witnesses as to be essentially worthless, but it quickly becomes apparent that he will not even consider appearing in the documentary (which he repeatedly reminds Stokman is “MY film, not yours!”) for anything less than a King’s ransom.

Faced with the prospect of being held hostage to the bloody-minded intransigence of his central character, Stokman is forced to do a mid-air repair job to prevent his already flimsy project from collapsing entirely. In time-honoured low-budget style, he attempts to save it by turning it into a story about his own embattled attempts to get a personal film made. To be fair to the guy, he makes a pretty good fist of what is every documentarian’s worst nightmare. We hear enough of Hojtowitz’s bullshit to recognise that his participation would have been of limited value anyway, and there is just enough in the testimony of the other interviewees to give those acquainted with Lumet’s film an idea of its veracity.

Many of the key events are revealed to have occurred more or less as depicted, and both Lumet and Pierson come across as intelligent, articulate men of integrity. They were genuinely intrigued by the story and felt little need to elaborate on what already seemed so outlandish. Lumet even explains that the words “Based on a True Story” were added to the start of the film in case people were reluctant to believe it could possibly have occurred otherwise.

Pierson, it transpires, interviewed all concerned parties prior to writing the script. Hojtowitz, who at that time was serving out his sentence, was the only participant who refused to see him. In part because of this, Pierson confesses that, although for the most part he remained true to the facts as he understood them, his characterisation of Hojtowitz as an individual may have been less accurate. Dog Day Afternoon is essentially a story about a man who takes on so much responsibility that it destroys him. Although almost every decision he makes is wrong, it is always for the right reasons. But, as Pierson points out after having finally met him, the real man is far more needy and insecure: “It’s almost as if he’s saying to you, ‘Look at me! Look at me! Look at me! Because if you look away, then suddenly I don’t exist anymore.’” And yet even in spite of this, the portrait painted by those who knew him personally, the tellers in the bank and the interview footage from the 1970s gives the impression that Pacino’s immortalisation of him was nevertheless fairly accurate.

Based On A True Story has a couple of interesting anecdotes and makes one important point about the dangers of artistic license when dramatising recent events. But it’s basically a botch job, patched-up by a director dealing with forces he was unable to control. What Stokman has ended up with is not a successful film about either the subjectivity of truth or the process of adaptation, but a largely unsuccessful film about the hazards of making a documentary on a low budget with an unpredictable subject and no bargaining power.

It’s an enjoyably diverting piece for those familiar with the Lumet film, but will probably only be of limited interest to everyone else. Included on the DVD of the main feature, it would make a decent extra, but as a narrative in its own right, it is ultimately too slight to be truly successful.

Reviewed on: 06 Nov 2005
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Documentary about the real story behind hit film Dog Day Afternoon.

Director: Walter Stokman

Writer: Walter Stokman

Starring: John Cazale, Sidney Lumet, Al Pacino, Frank Pierson, Chris Sarandon, John Wojtowicz

Year: 2005

Runtime: 75 minutes

Country: Netherlands


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