A man robs a bank to pay for his lover's operation; it turns into a hostage situation and a media circus.
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In Dog Day Afternoon, Sidney Lumet explores the subjective point of view of the perpetrators of a major felony or violent crime, a bank robbery which turned into a hostage taking incident, that actually took place in New York, in 1972 and uses it to furnish Al Pacino, with a stage set to showcase his stand-up comedy/cabaret talents. The script is designed to get laughs from the movie audience and portray the armed robbers, as cuddly misfits, who couldn't hurt a fly and who are, more or less, drawn into these circumstances, by the pressures of our cold and indifferent society.
The protagonist of the story is Sonny, the leader of the gang, played by Al Pacino, a homosexual who ostensibly hilariously, needs the money for his lover's sex change operation, who feels that he is "a woman trapped in a man's body". This line got the biggest laughs, from the movie going audiences, in the mid 1970s. In fact the whole script is really a series of one-liners that evoke laughter throughout the whole film, up to the shockingly serious ending, which is not funny, at all, when the FBI finally put a cruel end, to this enjoyable party.
The police and law enforcement are portrayed as over-weight incompetent party-poopers, by such luminaries as Charles Durning, also the over-weight corrupt cop, in the Sting, whom the audience watching the movie, as well as the audience behind the police barricades, are conditioned to ridicule, as this circus side-show develops. The bank facade becomes the stage for Al Pacino to make fun of the police, chanting political phrases of defiance, which gets the street crowd cheering for Al Pacino, and sets the viewers up, for Pacino's emotional "Attica" chant, which also got big laughs, from the movie audiences.
The "Establishment" are the bad guys and the robbers are the good guys, who are suddenly and horrifically dealt with, in the surprise ending, that seems to be designed to illustrate the cruelty of our law enforcement community. In reality of course, a hostage taking incident is a terrifying experience that no one enjoys, and armed bank robberies are usually extremely violent crimes. This reality is trivialized and the victims are shown to be on Al Pacino's side, in several instances, which also get hearty laughter responses from the movie audience. Although the film is very well crafted, and entertaining, it is a profound piece of subversive propaganda, coming from a director who, at least, doesn't even deny that he is a passionate Communist.