Taking its title from the words that open “Dog Day Afternoon,” Walter Stokman’s absorbing docu “Based on a True Story” investigates the real people and events that inspired Sidney Lumet’s 1975 bank-heist drama. Stokman, helmer of several doc shorts, inventively works around limited access to the story’s key figure, convicted felon John Wojtowicz (played in “Dog Day” by Al Pacino), who refuses to be interviewed onscreen because of a fee dispute. Result feels more cinematic than it might have if Stokman had gained full access. Hourlong version of “Story” sold well to broadcasters at recent Amsterdam doc market.
Pic plays briskly over a 75-minute running time. Opening reel establishes how on Aug. 22, 1972, Wojtowicz and accomplice Sal Naturile (John Cazale in “Dog Day”) held up a Brooklyn bank so that Wojtowicz could get money for a sex-change operation for his then-lover Ernie, later known as Liz Eden. The robbery swiftly turned into a 14-hour hostage siege that ended with fatal consequences.
Helmer Stokman layers together archival news material with clips from “Dog Day” and original interviews with surviving hostages and law-enforcement officers who played key roles in the 1972 events, as well as Wojtowicz’s ex-wife Carmen Bifulco. In addition, “Dog Day” screenwriter Frank Pierson and Sidney Lumet comment frankly on how they shaped the material into a tight, near Aristotelian drama which won Pierson the 1976 original screenplay Oscar.
Docu is fairly conventional until Stokman tries to secure an interview with the now-paroled Wojtowicz, whereupon things take a surreal turn, forcing the filmmaker to become, Nick Broomfield-style, a character within his own drama as he jostles with his subject for control. He plays recordings of his conversations with a volatile Wojtowicz, who fakes alternative identities when answering the phone until Stokman uses password “the Dog.” They bicker over Wojtowicz’s fee, but he still tells Stokman tantalizing details about what went down during the siege, disputing others’ account and the “Hollywood” version.
For the record, Pierson admits guiltily that he made up a scene where Pacino’s Sonny Wortzik is tempted by an FBI agent to double-cross his partner, a fiction that got the real Wojtowicz so badly beaten in prison he had to spend a year and half in isolation. Later, footage captures Wojtowicz and Pierson hugging at a Virginia film festival.
Emotional heart of the doc is the exploration of Wojtowicz’s love for transgendered Ernie/Liz, seen in a late-’70s interview by TV presenter Jeanne Parr acknowledging Wojtowicz did what he did to try to save her life, but nearly ruined it in the process. Final subtitles before end credits reveal multiple ironies.
Tech credits are above par, with artfully composed shots of interviewees recorded on celluloid and nimble editing integrating the disparate materials.