"This ain't no action movie," Sandro do Nascimento screams to the police in Bus 174, a Brazilian documentary about a hostage situation that got way out of hand on June 12, 2000. A street kid who'd been largely invisible his entire life, Sandro had the eyes of a nation upon him when a botched mugging aboard a Rio bus turned into the media event of the year -- an hours-long standoff that got the kind of TV coverage O.J. Simpson received when he took that ride on the freeway of love. No one could figure out exactly what Sandro wanted, but he kept waving his handgun around, threatening to kill his fellow passengers. And then, while he had everybody's attention, he decided to make the most of it, decrying the plight of those whom society would sweep under the carpet, or under a bridge. Until its final hours, his life never amounted to much, but if every dog has its day, Sandro had his Dog Day Afternoon.
And just about every minute of it was recorded on videotape -- reality-TV with a vengeance. Writer-director José Padilha has taken that footage and combined it with interviews to construct a portrait of a city at war with itself. Hostages, witnesses, cops, Sandro's friends and family, a social worker, a sociologist -- all throw in their two cents, and although Padilha spends a lot of time on Sandro's moment in the spotlight, he also tries to show where Sandro came from, what led a sweet, shy kid to hijack a bus and take 11 people hostage. To understand is not to excuse, however. Some will blanch when Sandro forces a young woman to write "HE IS GOING TO KILL US ALL" on a bus window in red lipstick, or when he shoves the muzzle of his gun down another woman's throat. The hostages later claimed he told them to feign hysteria, that he wasn't really going to hurt them. But could he be trusted?
It couldn't possibly have ended well, but it managed to end even worse than that, thanks to a final bit of clumsiness on the police's part. All in all, they'd allowed the whole thing to turn into a circus, forgetting only to charge admission.