Or, for that matter, quite like John Wojtowicz, on whom Sonny was based.
There’s also no bank robbery quite like the one John attempted, which makes its reenactment in Dog Day Afternoon so damn fascinating. No one could make up this story if they tried — except John himself.
Al Pacino is also the only actor who could have played Sonny, except John himself. (And frequent Pacino collaborator Sidney Lumet is the only director who could have brought it to life so exquisitely.) I feel comfortable saying Sonny wasn’t a stretch for Pacino, though the script itself had to have been the most unexpected, bizarre one he had encountered at that point in his career — even coming off the first two Godfather films and Serpico. Sonny is not anyone in particular, but he became someone by attempting to rob a bank to get money for his estranged wife’s sex reassignment surgery. He and his partner, Sal (John Cazale) aren’t particularly experienced in the art of robbery, so it quickly devolves from efficient operation to sloppy spectacle in a matter of minutes.
Once the police get wind of the funny business, it’s basically a farce. They’re both in over their heads as their demands escalate and their power surges beyond their control. Neither really wish harm on anyone, especially Sonny, who is about as compassionate and heroic as a bank robber can be. When medical issues arise with his hostages, he brings in people to treat them. His list of demands includes food for his hostages, too. He’s level-headed enough to stay in constant communication with the police chief, Moretti (Charles Durning) and consider the pleas of his wife, Leon (the sweetest Chris Sarandon). He’s also incredibly fucked up and brash — after all, the life choices he’s made culminate in the bank robbery he’s committing — and his lack of planning brings many moments of comedy to a relatively intense drama.
Sonny isn’t lovable, but he’s magnetic, and he’s committing a crime for a cause that’s better and greater than himself. He might be my favorite Pacino character so far, and it’s hard for me not to love every Pacino character. But a story like this doesn’t come around too often, and it’s a good thing it fell into the hands of the right artists to bring it to cinematic life. There’s no feeling in the world quite like watching this sort of movie.