American Animals is an overlooked gem.
For those who missed its 2018 release, American Animals, directed by Bart Layton, is the story of four college students who plan an (overly) ambitious heist to steal John James Audubon's rare, expensive tome The Birds of America from a university library, only to fumble, fail, and end up spending many of the next years of their lives in jail.
The best part of this film is how it tells its story: parts of the storytelling and much of the character development hinges on the film’s structural device of switching between a dramatization of the story and interviews with the real people being portrayed on screen. This addition crystallizes all of the important elements that a basis in “true story” can add to a film like this; the cuts to the interview portions allow the viewer to learn how each character has reflected on their past decisions, speculate about what factors in their lives drove them to participate in the attempted robbery, and, interestingly, evaluate the veracity of their memory of the events that took place in the film.
The inclusion of these sequences brings to the forefront something which many films “based on true stories” don’t: that (living) real-life figures interact with their representation in media, that filmmakers inevitably have to make decisions about which parts of the truth are represented in their dramatization, and, most importantly, that these people represented on screen, being that they each have a real-life counterpart, come along with a largely unknowable breadth of inner thoughts and personal histories that we don’t get to see represented in their characterization on screen. What truly occurred within the duration of this heist and its planning? Which characters are telling the truth and which are falsifying their stories? We weren’t there, and we aren’t them, so we can’t know for sure. My favorite films within the genre of “films based on real-life” include the metatext of the true events surrounding the film in the text of the film itself. The extra metalayer that exists within the characters and the narrative of the story adds so much to how the film is experienced that it just ends up becoming part of the experience in and of itself. This is at least partially true for most films based on real events, but American Animals just brings this aspect to the forefront.
The “Dog” in Dog Day Afternoon
Originally, I made the connection between American Animals and Dog Day Afternoon, after watching this excellent interview of Bart Layton by Cinefix:
In the interview, Layton explains how the documentary style filmmaking he used in American Animals was heavily inspired by the naturalistic filmmaking in Dog Day Afternoon. Layton taking inspiration from Dog Day Afternoon’s style is a perfect fit for the story of a tense, ill-fated heist based on true events, but Layton’s film adds an aspect of metanarrative that Dog Day Afternoon didn’t have. To see that level of involvement from the real-life counterparts in Dog Day Afternoon, I had to watch the documentary The Dog.
The Dog, directed by Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren, is a 2013 documentary portrait of the man behind the famous 1972 robbery of Chase Manhattan bank, John "Littlejohn Basso" Wojtowicz. He’s definitely eccentric enough to carry the documentary, between his countless marriages (four, to be exact), fringe beliefs (“I went from being a Goldwater conservative in 1964 to a McCarthy peacenik in 1968”), and trademark impulsivity. The documentary tracks his life from his military service, to his failed heist, to the robbery’s aftermath.
I’ll add that Dog Day Afternoon is a much better dramatization than The Dog is a documentary. Wojtowicz surely attempts to make a case for himself as motivated solely by providing the money for a gender confirmation surgery for his lover at the time, Elizabeth Eden. (In his words: “All you have to remember is that I robbed the bank to get Liz the sex change even though I was against her getting the sex change, and that was the only reason I robbed the bank.”) His pride in the bank robbery is overly arrogant to the point of self-conscious exaggeration, yet the filmmakers rarely push him for a more accurate account of his feelings about the events. One thing about John you realize while watching is that he’s clearly let the popular narrative of the robbery define his life so much that his entire identity is engulfed by it. He has a lot of investment in the idea that the robbery was purely for Eden’s sake, but speculation arises that, in reality, he just owed a lot of money to the mafia. The documentary only hints at the uncertainty surrounding his true motivation. In the words of Eden:
The documentary also features a revealing interview in which John is confronted by a reporter directly about his mob ties, an association that he vehemently denies. According to investigative reporting by Arthur Bell of the Village Voice, the mafia connection was a large part of the robbery’s motivation. Bell claims to have prison informants with intel on mafia goings-on who point out that the “sex change story [...] was peripheral to the motive”, and that half of the money from the heist would have gone to the Mafia.“...I don't think John really robbed the bank for me. I never have. I really honestly believe he was in debt to the mob for an unknown amount of money for my wedding.”
With the mounting evidence against his version of the story, does John actually believe the narrative he’s constructed in his mind? It’s left unclear in the documentary, but maybe these interviews with John are the closest we can come to ‘certainty’ about an event that’s been reconstructed dozens of times; by the press, by Hollywood, and by the unreliable people who were involved.
The tricky work of transforming this story into what would become Dog Day Afternoon is largely attributed to the screenwriting talents of Frank Pierson. Part of the genius of the film was Pierson’s ability to find a compelling emotional conflict for Sonny (Al Pacino), the film’s counterpart for John Wojtowicz, in the midst of the jumble of conflicting stories surrounding Wojtowicz. John, in prison for the duration of the film’s production, felt that he wasn’t paid enough for the use of his story by Warner Bros., so Pierson was out of luck trying to contact him directly. Instead, Pierson was forced to construct Sonny’s character based on secondhand accounts of what John was like, and those accounts often conflicted with each other. Eventually, Pierson found a common thread connecting everyone’s accounts: Wojtowicz saw himself as a ‘protector’, but his life was ultimately a trail of ‘unfulfilled promises’. With this basis as the core of Sonny’s character, Pierson wrote the famous “phone call” scene, one of the most moving and human moments of the whole film.
Cleverly, the way Pierson had to construct Sonny’s character mirrors how the audience learns about Sonny while watching the film. He simply appears in the film’s first scene, up to no good, for a reason we can’t discern. We can draw conclusions about him based on his actions, but he doesn’t have a real backstory for the first half of the film. Much like Pierson’s experience while researching his script, the people surrounding Sonny have very different accounts of what he’s like: his first wife, Carmen, thinks he could never do a malicious thing in his life, his mother thinks it’s all because of his first wife, and Leon (the film’s analogue to Elizabeth Eden, portrayed by Chris Sarandon), faints upon seeing him, terrified.
By the end, the audience doesn’t have a ‘full’ idea of what led up to the events of the movie, but we understand the core of Sonny’s motivations, his vices, and his feelings of powerlessness. He wants to provide for Leon, who, the film implies, is suffering from severe gender dysphoria, but his low economic status and emotional volatility only makes the situation more hopeless. The end result is one of the most interesting protagonists in classic film, and a fascinating example of how the metanarrative surrounding a film can influence its production.
It’s heartening to see directors today, like Layton, continue to take inspiration from Dog Day Afternoon. It’s one of those movies that I can find something new to appreciate with every watch; it’s success is a testament to the crew’s ability to use a story’s limitations to their advantage. The film’s structure and editing is just one aspect of the film’s success, and I suspect I’ll be writing about Dog Day Afternoon and its impact on me well into the future.