Review Monday: 10/28/13 (12 Years a Slave, Blackfish)

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On the week of Halloween, it’s only proper to post reviews for two of the most horrifying films to come out this year that are also riveting true stories of captivity: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (B+) and Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary Blackfish (B+).

12 Years a Slave is a true-life American horror story, based on the life of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an expert violinist and free man living in Saratoga, New York in the early 1840s. However, two men claiming to be circus managers drug and swindle Solomon into chains and send him off with a new identity: Platt, a “Georgia runaway.” In the film’s opening scene, taken from the middle of his stay on Louisiana plantations, Solomon is tired and weary under the baking sun, although he works diligently. He then tries to use acid from blackberries on his dinner plate as ink for letters that he hopes can reach his family. This is a bleak, sometimes uncompromising glimpse of American slavery and definitely one of the finest accounts of this shameful history ever captured on film.

The film comes from British director and conceptual artist Steve McQueen. Like his feature debut, Hunger, it tells an all-encompassing story of brutality and a limited means for survival through an episodic structure. This film could be challenging for viewers expecting to see an overwrought dramatic arc following Solomon from his first appearance in the antebellum South to his defiance of slave owners (played, both masterfully and cartoonish, by Paul Dano, Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson). Instead, McQueen tells Solomon’s story with a collection of moments where the protagonist mostly partakes in cotton picking, observes whippings and other slaves whelping through their days, and searches for the humanity within himself to survive such an ordeal.

As Solomon, British character actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (pronounced “Chew-a-tell Edge-ee-oh-for” and best known for his supporting work in Dirty Pretty Things and Inside Man) is devastatingly good. He is already a front-runner for Best Actor at the 2013 Academy Awards, although he rarely gets enough time to make a fierce speech that could amount to an Oscar-reel clip. Like Forest Whitaker’s turn in The Butler, Ejiofor internalizes the pain and lets his face speak volumes. The closest the actor comes to seething anger is when he digs into his wounds during a Negro spiritual and sings about his “soul arising.” With a silky voice and hardened face, Ejiofor has been a major presence in other films and finally gets the chance to command the screen here.

Besides Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave is stacked with powerful supporting performances. Michael Fassbender is magnetic and abrasively over-the-top as Edwin Epps, a drunken slave owner who believes he is a man of scripture but is in fact a sinner. Sarah Paulson plays Epps’ missus, who controls her husband’s mood almost as violently as he does his slaves. Paul Giamatti gives an extended cameo (and is unsurprisingly strong) as a deceitful slave trader. In addition, newcomer Lupita Nyong’o gives an affecting performance as Patsey, a young mother fallen to despair and nearly driven to suicide after she is separated from her kids. Despite picking more cotton than any of Epps’ other ‘property,’ she still gets lashes from his outstretched arm.

Like 2009’s Hunger, his exceptional debut, McQueen makes a film full of visceral brutality and perhaps a few too many willful artistic flourishes that seem out of place. For a film of such raw subject matter, some of the establishing shots are too pictorial and pretty, interrupting the mood like if Terrence Malick’s photography intruded on a Ken Loach drama. McQueen lets the action unfold and the characters develop through spare images – of a burned letter folding into ashes, of humans standing like livestock as a slave trader pokes and prods them to prospective buyers, of a bloodied back after a blistering whipping session. In the film’s most startling image, Solomon hangs with a noose around his neck, barely alive and his feet barely stroking the muddy ground, while other people go about their business around him and hardly glance at the trembling slave.

At some points, it seems as if McQueen does not know whether to keep strictly to the historical narrative or deviate into a more abstract representation of human bondage. Even if it is not the director’s best film – although it is a big improvement from his empty sex-addict drama Shame from 2011 – McQueen still employs many of his signatures effectively, from long takes to a stylized amount of limited light (which works well given the lack of electricity in the antebellum South).

12 Years a Slave is more of a slice-of-life depiction of human adversity and barbarism in American plantations than a compelling biopic. Whether or not the film is too artful and episodic to quench the adoration of Academy voters who loved the exploitative pleasures of Django Unchained or mainstream audiences who made a simplified account of black history a major hit with this summer’s The Butler remains to be seen.

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Airing to big ratings on CNN last week after a modest theatrical run during the summer, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary Blackfish makes a great and equally unsettling companion piece to The Cove, the Oscar-winning doc from 2009. It is also a haunting depiction of the inhumane treatment of mammals and an infuriating glimpse at the practices from aquariums like SeaWorld in Orlando. The doc’s initial incident occurred on February 24, 2010 at SeaWorld when Tilikum, a 4,000-pound killer whale who had been held in captivity for more than 20 years, lived up to his ‘killer’ name and took the life of senior orca trainer Dawn Brancheau.

The park’s trainers who contributed to the film now view their work at SeaWorld as ‘misguided’ and ‘barbaric.’ When SeaWorld hired several of them, the new employees kept gushing about how great their jobs were – they were excited to interact with the majestic beasts of the water. However, dancing with killer whales is only safe when the trainer leads. Today, these past idealists have moral regrets, explaining that they bought into SeaWorld’s culture of building relationships with the whales while they, in fact, knew nothing about the mammals’ history of behaviour. The creatures the trainers were so excited to get close with could potentially be their murderer.

Blackfish plays back the gleeful commercials for big aquariums, which showcase the trainers riding atop the orcas, their skin like a surfboard, and smiling broadly after kissing the mammals. However, when one swims with orcas trapped in what is essentially a bathtub in comparison to the ocean where they grew up, it is hard to predict the outcome.

Cowperthwaite wisely brings in marine biologists to talk about the behaviour of the creatures. They touch on how these massive whales live in large families and the kids never leave the mother’s side – even as adults. As one of the biologists explains, “Everything about them is social.” They have a thick brain, with an advance emotional sense of self that even humans do not have. Alas, separation from one’s family is among the most agonizing things that the mammals could experience. Blackfish gets its title from the First Nations term for an orca, which alludes to how it is a creature of great spiritual power that must not be reckoned with.

The only times that the film treads too far is when it uses suspenseful music to titillate the audience and get them ready for a potential attack, which sometimes feels exploitative. Cowperthwaite often shows a disturbing human mangling and at other times prepares for it but stops before the gorier details can surface onscreen. On the other hand, Cowperthwaite also shows certain managers raking the orcas’ leathery skin, making them bleed into the pool. The brutality went both ways.

Disregarding some of the more ill advised attacks shown, Blackfish is still a compelling and deeply unsettling documentary. The argument is simple: dangerous and incredibly inhumane things can happen when you store whales in a tiny, dark pool with no escape for much of their lives and restrict their access to food and family.

The piercing chirps coming from the orcas are not out of friendship but of distress, an audio specialist tells the audience. If one did not feel enough pity for the animals, there is one scene where SeaWorld sends baby Shamu to another aquarium, far away from her mother Katina who remained in the park’s tank. After Shamu left, Katina remained still at the corner of the pool, speaking in long-range vocals with hopes that her child could hear her. To the doc’s benefit, it is not as much the story of the human trainers as it is about the whales.

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The Essentials: Fail-Safe (1964)

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“This disappearance of human responsibility is one of the most disturbing aspects of the whole thing. It’s as if human beings had evaporated, and their places were taken by computers. And all day you and I have sat here, fighting, not each other, but rather the big rebellious computerized system, struggling to keep it from blowing up the world.” – The President (Henry Fonda) to the Russian Premier

Timing is everything. Sidney Lumet’s thriller Fail-Safe, which takes place at the brink of nuclear war, is not among one of the director’s most popular films due to a circumstance of bad timing. Columbia released the film in the fall of 1964, months after Stanley Kubrick’s very similar Dr. Strangelove, the Cold War classic that also depicted the madness of MAD (or mutually assured destruction) by telling us to stop worrying and love the bomb. That film had deadpan comedy and three Peter Sellers performances. As a result, some audiences laughed inadvertently to Lumet’s thriller. Nearly 50 years after its opening, both Kubrick’s and Lumet’s films are indicative of the finest and most urgent stories of this trigger-sensitive period, although the latter is not ordained as a film classic. It should be.

Fail-Safe features some of the same filmic techniques Lumet used to create suspense and claustrophobia in 12 Angry Men, although there is more experimentation here. In the opening sequence, General Abraham Black (Dan O’Herlihy) watches a bull thrash around an arena menacingly. He quivers and shakes as the matador stabs the bull. General Black wakes up, suddenly and sweaty, from this frenzied, abstract dream. All of the fear and paranoia pent up from a period of potential mutually assured destruction comes in the form of the bull. This symbolic dream foreshadows the perilous day ahead.

The first 20 minutes of the film cut between a few of the ensemble characters. General Bogan (Frank Overton) is giving a tour at the Strategic Air Command headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska. At the same time, political scientist Professor Groeteschele (Walter Matthau) debates at an elite Washington party what can happen to society with a detriment of 60 million in the population. Two Air Force commanders (Edward Binns and Fritz Weaver) leave an Alaskan pool hall and fly off to their fail-safe point.

In the film, pilots fly to the designated ‘fail-safe’ point when an unidentified aircraft appears on radar. Pilots are supposed to stay at the ‘fail-safe’ until the plane has been identified. If it is a harmless plane, the pilots will return to base. However, the two Air Force colonels receive an order to fly to Moscow and drop a nuclear bomb. There is not actually a nuclear threat and the order to attack is a technical error. Without hesitation, though, the commanders leave their ‘fail-safe’ post and into Soviet airspace.

Back on the ground, there is fear and disbelief as the plane veers toward Russia. Members of the SAC run around helplessly and try to intervene by calling the bombers back to base, but to little avail. The President (Henry Fonda, yet again a voice of moral conscience) calls up the Russian Premier to defuse the situation. The President even insists on his translator, played by a young Larry Hagman, to let him know if he can hear any suspicious subtext in the Premier’s voice. He wants to make sure there is no chance of a façade in the voice hinting that the superpowers are on the cusp of nuclear war.

Fail-Safe is a film unafraid to unnerve audiences by stepping right to the brink of destruction. Walter Bernstein’s screenplay doesn’t put much of its effort into defining the characters, a sterile, objective approach that actually works. Instead of depicting characters in crisis, he creates a world in crisis. Like 12 Angry Men and Dog Day Afternoon, Lumet restricts the action to a few sets, and the camera (cinematography is from Gerald Hirschfeld) closes in on the characters as their world approaches a breaking point.

For a film of its time, Fail-Safe is terrifying, to the extent that audiences probably left it more panicked than they were going in. The ending, similar to the one from the 1962 by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, likely did not quell their worries of mutually assured destruction. Similar to Lumet’s other films that I have written on, Fail-Safe features no music, a creative choice that only ratchets up the intensity.

Unlike the farcical conclusion of Slim Pickens holding onto a falling bomb and shouting like an excited cowboy at Dr. Strangelove’s end, Fail-Safe concludes with an ominous countdown. Lumet films a montage of American citizens enjoying a sunny day. Then, as each number counts down to a potential nuclear holocaust, he zooms in and freeze frames on moments from the montage, creating fractured blips of lives enjoying the sun right before clouds of doom descend on their metropolis.

Something that is ‘fail safe’ is carefully designed to account for the ways that a malfunction can occur within it. If there is a glitch, the device can fix itself and not make the problem worse. The problem is that however ready the U.S. and the USSR were during the Cold War in keeping things calm and orderly – precautions and protocols were ready in case of an immediate disaster – the outcome of nuclear war could come from a mere mistake, as portrayed in the film.

Regardless, since the end of times can be preordained with such precision, how can one assign blame to nuclear war? The characters in Fail-Safe still panic and run around trying to subvert a system that was made to protect civilization. Although Dr. Strangelove is perhaps more daring for tackling a period of paranoia with comedy, Fail-Safe is also daring for not shying away from a conclusion of significant terror. Unlike Kubrick’s satire, the threat of catastrophe stings every frame of this tense, terrifying (and deeply under-appreciated) film.

A Rant of Rhyme and Reason: This Rant is Rated R

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Producer Harvey Weinstein seems like a guy who says the word ‘fuck’ a lot. He often comes off like a pompous loudmouth with an ego bigger than the golden shrine of awards that likely appears in his daydreams as he watches a sullen biopic or subversive indie flick and calculates how to churn them into Oscar winners. He also seems like a guy that would be unwise to get into a shouting match with. Therefore, I am playing it safe by agreeing with the movie mogul here. The argument: there is something very, very wrong with the Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) ratings system.

Weinstein’s fights with the MPAA are legendary. The two have sparred so much that the Weinstein Company could try greenlighting a based-on-a-true-story underdog flick about these battles that would hit all the right notes with Academy voters. Every time the producer goes head-to-head with the association, it becomes a public relations campaign against the tyranny of censorship that usually frames Weinstein as the good guy. In these cases, he is.

The latest film from the Weinstein Company to get a vitriolic protest from the producer is Philomena, a film that I had the pleasure of viewing at the Toronto International Film Festival this year. The film was the runner-up for the most prestigious award of the festival, the People’s Choice Award (12 Years A Slave was the winner). The film from director Stephen Frears (The Queen) tells the true story of an ex-journalist (played by Steve Coogan) helping an elderly lady (Dame Judi Dench) search for a son that the convent took away from her 50 years earlier.

The audience that I saw it with at the festival ate it up, laughing and crying at all the right moments. It’s a crowd-pleaser that sustained the largest round of applause of any film I saw at TIFF – even longer than Gravity’s – and it is sure to be a hit, albeit a modest one, when it comes out in late November.

There is only one small issue grating on Weinstein’s gears: the MPAA gave Philomena an R rating. Why? It features two uses of a certain four-letter word beginning with the letter “F,” including one utterance by Dame Judi Dench – something that ought to be shared with the world. That alone has secured the rating, which in the United States prompts anyone under 17 to buy a ticket with a parent or adult guardian.

Now, Philomena is not exactly a film that will find its box office take deterred due to the harsher rating. The drama will probably not find much of a young audience anyway. It is coming out on November 22, the same day as The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. The average age of the audience at the screening I attended was probably not far from Dame Judi’s.

Regardless, it is a film with Oscar buzz that is losing a small segment of its audience. Although the film does deal with some mature themes, there is no sex or violence. Meanwhile, other films have pushed the MPAA rule that a PG-13-rated release contains only one “F” word (the only one that leaps to my mind right away is Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 remake, which uses it twice).

So, why are some films able to skirt over some of the MPAA guidelines while others are stricken with harsher ratings? Films from major studios definitely have more to lose with the Restricted rating – Ocean’s 11 may not have spawned two sequels without a sizable young audience. Meanwhile, those aimed at art-houses are almost exclusively adult in tone and content since kids and young adults rarely see independent features.

For more than a decade, Weinstein was at the helm of independent distributor Miramax with brother Bob. When Miramax was at its height, the studio had vitriolic battles with the MPAA to ease NC-17 ratings – which forbids any audience members under 17 from watching the film – on Clerks (which was successfully appealed to an “R” rating) and Kids (unsuccessful). Now, Weinstein is fighting to halt the MPAA’s penalties on profanity even further.

He unsuccessfully appealed to get The King’s Speech, which had one funny, profanity-laced sequence with the sputtering protagonist, a PG-13 rating until after the film had won an Oscar for Best Picture and made much of its business. His studio’s 2012 documentary Bully, told from the perspective of many grade-school kids that had been bullied, got an R rating for six uses of the F-word. The MPAA only reversed their call after editing out three instances of the word – for anyone keeping with the math, that’s still one more swear word than in Philomena. Before these cuts, the film could not be screened for school groups, where it could have been a pedagogical tool to talk about issues of psychological and emotional violence.

The decision to re-edit Bully came after about a half-million people signed a petition to change the MPAA’s rating. The film’s director, Lee Hirsch – who I met at Hot Docs in 2011 – explained that he made the documentary for all kids to see as a way to stop the epidemic of bullying in the United States. “To capture the stark reality of bullying, we had to capture the way kids act and speak in their everyday lives — and the fact is that kids use profanity,” the director said in a statement when the doc was up for appeal. “It is heartbreaking that the MPAA, in adhering to a strict limit on certain words, would end up keeping this film from those who need to see it most.”

Perhaps the Weinstein Company is once again losing the battle with Philomena because Stephen Frears’ film depicts a mighty institution, the Catholic Church, with contempt. Weinstein bears similarity to the Steve Coogan character from the film, Martin Sixsmith. Sixsmith is a dogged journalist who is cynical of religion and unleashes a bitterly funny tirade against the Church at the end of the film. Maybe when the ultra-powerful MPAA viewed the film, they saw Weinstein’s spiky arrogance inside that character as he railed against a sacred, conservative hierarchy.

The MPAA needs to figure out how to change their classification system. Films with shady social messages or reprehensible characters that can avoid graphic violence, sexual situations and harsh language are frequently given lighter ratings than ones with powerful, positive messages. For now, some of the association’s regulations continue to be fucking ridiculous. Oops. I guess you are now unable, by the MPAA’s statutes, to show this column to anyone under 17 – unless you are viewing it alongside them.

Review Monday: 10/21/13 (Captain Phillips, All Is Lost, The Fifth Estate)

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British director Paul Greengrass made the best movie about 9/11 that will likely ever be released (United 93) and followed that with a lame-duck examination of the subsequent War on Terror (Green Zone). A man known for bringing a documentarian approach to dramatization, Greengrass’s latest film, Captain Phillips (B+), is a pulse-pounding thriller stemming from a true, pulse-pounding situation that gets the advantage of the filmmaker’s directorial flourishes.

The film’s release comes with controversy too. Phillips’ real-life crewmembers label the film as propaganda due to their derision of the captain during the hostage situation their ship came under while traveling by the Horn of Africa in April 2009. They have sued the Danish shipping company Maersk for allowing their vessel to be unarmed despite knowledge that they would sail near bleaker, pirate-filled waters, and for assigning Phillips as commander. They blast the captain as unfit to lead the boat since he supposedly ignored piracy warnings and sailed the vessel too close to the Somali coast.

With prior knowledge of their history negating Phillips’ testimony in A Captain’s Duty, a book he wrote about the ordeal, it could be daunting to watch the film without trying to figure out how accurately it depicts the title character. However, with such a potent cast and such dizzying heights of suspense, it is too breathless of a thriller to ponder over too much during its 134-minute running time. While Hanks is remarkably grounded as the allegedly courageous captain, the film works because he has great foes in the four Somali-American actors cast as his predator pirates.

Captain Phillips is not a one-sided film and the captors are treated with dignity. They have a back-story too: Abduwali Muse, played by Barkhad Abdi (who merits Best Supporting Actor recognition) is leading a small crew a few hundred miles from the Somali coast to capture a ship to impress a warlord. (One could argue that Phillips may have been an even more effective thriller if we spent a few more scenes with Muse and his crew of plunderers). Greengrass’s film is not just the story of one captain trying to protect his own interests and survive a demanding, frightening ordeal, but of two.

Dead-eyed and with bodies so skeletal that their bones protrude, the four Somali men board the vessel after a treacherous high-seas cat-and-mouse sequence. Unlike the crew, they have guns and are not afraid to threaten Phillips’ crew. They demand that Phillips give them a ransom of $10 million. Muse nicknames the captain “Irish,” although he does not quite have the luck the name would associate.

The scenes on the Maersk Alabama are tense and compelling, with the ingenuity of the trapped crew tricking their well armed, trigger-heavy captors. As Phillips cautiously leads the pirates down into the engine room, where his crew hides in the darkness, he engages his captors in a power struggle. Even if they are holding him at gunpoint, Phillips is still the key to getting the ransom and they have to abide by him. Watching the power shifts between the pirates and the captain is gripping.

The film, written by Billy Ray (The Hunger Games) bears many similarities to Greengrass’s United 93, which moved between the hijackers, the brave passengers who rose to be heroes and the air traffic controllers who moderated and followed the process of that fateful morning. Here, the pirates, the crew and the Navy, which tracks the attack and tries to negotiate a deal with the Somalis, each get their own moments. (The only scene that Ray could have discarded is an unnecessary introduction of Phillips, as his wife, played by Catherine Keener in a nondescript role, drives him to the airport.)

While some have criticized Greengrass’s insistence on the handheld camera, it is used masterfully here to emphasize the tightness of a variety of settings, like the ship and submarine corridors and a cramped lifeboat where the pirates eventually hold Phillips hostage. Here, handheld is neither a hindrance nor used in a way that invites seasickness.

There is always the chance that a more balanced telling of the story, with some of the other sailors’ takes on Phillips’ job performance, would make the title character more fascinating. Here, he is a competent captain who had prepped his crew to be ready for a potential invasion and later took matters into his own hands, sacrificing his own life. Had Hanks’s portrayal featured some of these criticisms, the actor could have mined greater depth in the role. Regardless, it does not change the fact that Captain Phillips is a riveting adrenaline rush that mines great drama from the power struggle between two captains who turn out to be more alike than we expect.

Some of my reviews for other fall releases are up on entertainment website We Got This Covered. The two reviews of mine that my editor uploaded this past week are for two solid dramas that are not lighting up the box office. All Is Lost (B) is a captivating, but nearly wordless drama about a man (played by Robert Redford) braving the high seas and battling his own mortality as storms rush through. You can find that review here. The Fifth Estate (B) is a flawed but fascinating primer of the rise of WikiLeaks that, thankfully, does not suffer from information overload and features a terrific performance from Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange. That review is here.

The Essentials: Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

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“He wants to kill me so bad he can taste it. Huh? Attica! Attica! Attica!” – Sonny (Al Pacino)

Earlier this week, I wrote a column about how tremendous entertainment can still arise from fact-based stories that stick closely to the truth. One example of rich true-story entertainment is Sidney Lumet’s blistering 1975 drama Dog Day Afternoon. The film is based on the story of John Wojotwicz, who attempted to rob the Chase Manhattan Bank on a sweltering summer day in Brooklyn with friend Salvatore Naturile.

It’s the film that Vincent Canby of the New York Times called Lumet’s “most accurate, most flamboyant New York movie,” exclaiming that the best films about the city had to be vivid and vibrant. One especially striking shot from the film’s opening credits montage has the Manhattan skyline in the background and a dense cemetery, full of spiky tombstones, in the fore. The image projects both the majesty and meddling violence that made New York City such a boiling pot in the 1970s – and such a compelling setting for director Sidney Lumet through a five-decade career.

The day they held up the bank was August 22, 1972. Released three years later, Lumet’s New York drama does not just recapture a historical event but an amalgamation of moments from the subversive spirit of the early 1970s. Dog Day Afternoon is perhaps more emblematic of the sinister, cynical themes that dominated movies from “New Hollywood” filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and William Friedkin than any other film of the decade, although there is no shortage of light comedy in it either.

Lumet’s drama also contains one of cinema’s most potent screenplays from Frank Pierson (who won an Oscar for it, adapting the story from an article by P.F. Kulge and Thomas Moore). Pierson structures the story into a dozen 10-minute sequences. Lumet paces the action so that it is, in itself, characteristic of a dog: minutes of tense wagging followed by piercing barks that intensify the story.

Take the first scene of Dog Day Afternoon: after a montage of street scenes set to Elton John’s “Amoreena,” we watch Sonny (Al Pacino), Sal (John Cazale) and Stevie (Gary Springer) murmur the final words to their plan in a beat-up car. (From the moment “Amoreena” ends, there is barely a moment in Afternoon with a musical score.) The viewer cannot hear what they are saying. Looking aimless, the three men saunter into the bank. A thick silence proceeds before the soundtrack erupts when Sonny breaks a long silver gift box he carried into the bank and retrieves a cocked rifle.

Sonny’s brief struggle removing the gun from its case shows how he lacks any sense of control or masculine bravado. He is a confused, seething, meek man who looks more like a gawky high schooler than Alain Delon. In fact, Sonny’s plan is disorganized and seemingly last-minute: much of the money from the bank vault was picked up earlier that afternoon, leaving a mere $1,100 in savings, and Charlie gets cold feet and leaves the bank just a couple of minutes in. Sonny is far from the corrupt, scenery-chewing men that Pacino would later play to diminishing returns. Perhaps that is why it is the actor’s finest performance.

Like Lumet’s earlier masterpiece 12 Angry Men, much of Dog Day Afternoon takes place in just a few settings. Nearly the entire film happens in the First Brooklyn Savings Band and the street outside, as Sonny engages a media circus, dozens of skittish police officers and mobs of cheering (and ranting) New Yorkers trying to get a glimpse of the action.

A blaring phone that keeps ringing inside the bank pierces the film’s audio track, creating stress and suspense. Sonny has no intent to harm any of the employees he holds hostage, and both the viewer (and many from the outside crowd) start forming sympathy with the ex-convict. The crowds await Sonny’s exit of the bank, so they can cheer him on like a movie star, although he is actually more of an anti-authority champion. At one point, Sonny even flings marked bills into the crowd.

Lumet and director of photography Victor J. Kemper (The Friends of Eddie Coyle) give Dog Day Afternoon a documentary-level realism, full of handheld camerawork inside the bank and shots from a helicopter overlooking the sideshow on the outside. There are also many long shots and extended takes that condense into quick clips of people aiming their guns and ducking for cover, showing off Lumet’s intrepid sense of pacing and keeping to the climactic build-up of Pierson’s 10-minute sequences.

Lumet uses Dog Day Afternoon to reflect on many of the social ills of the time – Vietnam, homosexuality, police brutality. Sonny is a Vietnam veteran who gets the crowd cheering and riled up after yelling “Attica! Attica” at approaching cops aiming guns at him. This was a timely reference to a riot at Attica Prison where police used excessive force to quell the inmates who ha seized control. (When the director rehearsed the film with his actors, he allowed them the chance to improvise and develop their own characters. Pacino’s spontaneous shouting of “Attica!” was one of the improvisations.)

Sal, meanwhile, is his rat-faced partner repressing many sour feelings. As he marches around the bank with a gun, it seems as if the slightest interference could lead to him firing a bullet. John Cazale, best known for playing Fredo in the first two Godfather films, is perfectly cast in the hushed but menacing role. Also wonderful is Charles Durning as boiled detective sergeant Moretti, trying to ease Sonny into working things out while trying to stand against the anti-authority zeitgeist that enchants the crowds to the side.

The film features a twist in the middle: Sonny’s motive for robbing the bank is to help his lover, Leon (an aching, vulnerable Chris Sarandon), get a sex change operation. For all the praise Dog Day Afternoon gets for Pacino’s acting and Lumet’s direction, many forget that it is one of the very few mainstream movies to have a gay character as its protagonist. Moreover, the film came out in 1975, not long after the Stonewall riots rocked New York City and galvanized gay communities across the United States.

The film does not depict a mutually affectionate relationship between the gay men. Although Leon and Sonny were married in an official ceremony – based on an event that actually happened in 1972 – neither are saints. Leon tells the cops that Sonny put a gun to his head earlier in the summer, and later reveals that he tried to commit suicide from a concoction of pills since he did not think he could afford the $2,500 operation. It is an unstable relationship, although Sonny is in a last-dash grab to rekindle love with his husband before police inevitably takes him away.

Lumet guides Pacino to his career-best performance, as a character emblematic of the social woes of the time. Sonny is deeply complex and torn between his interests: between a wife and a male lover, between showing compassion to the hostages and treating them as tokens for his well being. He is a man both mad and tender, and this intricate balance makes Sonny one of the great cinematic anti-heroes of the 1970s in one of the decade’s definitive films.