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Empire List #443: Dog Day Afternoon

Have you ever been flipping through your TV channels and suddenly you run into a media circus? Those are a lot of fun. The name fits incredibly well too. A circus implies entertainment, clowns, a ringmaster and an audience. However, the media part of the equation implies cameras and possibly a global audience, no matter how silly or violent the situation might turn out to be. That is the situation in which Al Pacino’s character is plunged into in Sydney Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon” from 1975.

I must have been around ten when I first saw this movie and I remember being dumbstruck by how crazy the situation got with each passing minute. My family and I had recently moved to Santiago, Chile and I guess dad was just flipping through the TV one evening when the show started. I wouldn’t exactly call it a family movie, but I was entertained, that’s for sure.

It all starts simply enough. Al Pacino plays Sonny Wortzik who, along with his partners Salvatore “Sal” Naturile (John Cazale) and Stevie (Garry Springer), tries to rob a bank in Brooklyn in broad daylight. Things don’t go as planned. Stevie panics and runs out. When Sonny and Sal get to the vault it is almost empty. They decide to leave, but the phone rings. To Sonny’s surprise the call is for him. There is a cop on the other end of the line who asks him what he thinks he’s doing. Sonny takes a look across the street and suddenly there are cops everywhere. Then the fun begins.

Sonny and Sal decide to stay in the bank and use the customers and bank employees as hostages. The police assumed the robbers would surrender when they saw they were surrounded so they are unprepared to negotiate with hostage taker. Soon the FBI shows up and it’s not long before the press arrives. Then a crowd gathers to watch the action live. Sonny and Sal now have an audience. Time to make crazy demands such as pizzas, doctors, and a plane to the tropics.

As the day goes by the police tries to find out more about Sonny in an attempt to reason with him. They contact his ex-wife and put her on the phone with Sonny, who ends up having a shooting match with her. Then they figure out the reason he needed the money in the first place was a for a sex-change operation. Not for him, but for his wife Leon (Chris Sarandon) a pre-operative transsexual. That part I had trouble understanding. Again, I was ten. Well, I guess I was going to learn about these concepts someday.

Looking back at this movie today, I find incredibly prophetic in terms of the power of the media. When Sonny walks outside he challenges the police by chanting “Attica, Attica” in a reference to a prison riot that killed 39 people. The cameras capture everything. The crowd loves it; Sonny becomes their hero, and news network want to interview him for the ratings.

But then again, people just love a good show. Remember how many people tuned in when they thought that kid was stuck inside that balloon the United-States? How about all of those miners stuck inside that mineshaft in Chile? By the end of that event the media was digging into those people’s lives, finding about their hobbies, their ambitions, and even their mistresses. I should know: I was researching these guys during one of my journalism classes.

Can you imagine an event like the bank robbery in “Dog Day Afternoon” happening today? By the end of the first hour anybody with an Internet connection and a laptop would have found out about Sonny’s ex-wife, his children, his transsexual wife, and most likely his weight and height. And you know what else? If Sonny were smart he would have been tweeting during the whole thing. By the end he might have more followers than Lady Gaga.

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