Last week, I had the good fortune to catch Mad Max: Fury Road. I came into the theater expecting an incredible odyssey through a fantastical, apocalyptic environment (those hopes were completely met). I had no reason, however, to anticipate the realization that would hit me several days later: Fury Road is a perfect primer for The Great Alone. Instead of the feverish, sweltering Outback, The Great Alone throws the viewer far north, into the Alaskan wilderness. It is this harsh place that hosts the Iditarod, a thousand-mile dogsled race across an unforgivingly cold mishmash of mountains, plains, rivers, lakes, and forests. One of its founders was Dick Mackey, an Alaskan local who won the race himself in 1978, by the closest margin in the event’s history. The film skips a generation, focusing on Dick’s son, Lance, who wishes to follow in his father’s footsteps. The Great Alone does justice to Lance’s remarkable tale of survival and success, and is framed exceptionally well by director Greg Kohs and his team.
From the very beginning, the film is able to communicate both the Mackeys’ special connection to the sport of dogsledding, and their determination to overcome obstacles. We first see Dick in his kitchen, trudging along on a squeaky treadmill, as audio commentary from a past Iditarod race plays on the soundtrack. As he continues to trot, there are flashes of video that catch the heart-stopping, celebratory moments from Dick’s Iditarod win. It is a beautiful introduction; one feels as though Dick, who is now elderly, is almost being consumed by this singular point in his life.
Afterwards, the story moves from the victor to a spectator in the crowd: Dick’s son Lance, who, in a parallel storyline, is taking part in the 2013 race (his twelfth go at it). The film notes that fewer people have completed the Iditarod than have summited Mount Everest, just as the camera captures Lance and his dogs fading into the all-encompassing whiteness of the terrain. When Lance moves through the first several days of the race, there’s an amusing juxtaposition between the event’s regional prestige and the bare-bones feel of its host environment. Instead of teammates relaxing in a steamy locker room, we see Mackey’s crew of dogs resting outside in their own little hills of straw. At one point, Lance engages in a familiar sort of interview with a reporter, not too far removed from those interviews conducted in the biggest stadiums down in the continental US. But it’s all taking place in a cramped, dated athletic center with almost no one else around.
While the film stays focused on the 2013 Iditarod, Lance has a tumultuous past that receives due exploration. From a young age, Lance sat in on the conversations of mushers who gathered in his home, and he couldn’t help but become invested in dogsledding. We learn that Lance’s mother is also the adventurous type (opting to fly planes), as is his brother (who feels a bit shoehorned in here, and is unfortunately given too little attention throughout the rest of the film). However, Lance’s increasing drive was curtailed by the sudden divorce of his parents. The film looks at both sides in this domestic struggle, and captures some frank admissions about the pressures of dogsledding, and the sport’s impact on family life. Dick candidly admits he understood the quirks and personalities of his dogs better than he understood his own children. Not long after, a bitter Lance tells us that, even as a resident of Alaska, he didn’t go hunting or fishing with his father until Dick was 80 years old. Exasperated, Lance can only finish with a concise “are you kidding me?”
The divorce pushed Lance down an uneven, nearly unbelievable side path for many of his teenage years. This period was marked by scores of minor crimes, excess alcohol consumption, an (unsuccessful) stint in rehab for drug use, a complicated rendezvous with his father (who ran a convenience store for truckers at the “northernmost truck stop in the world”), a dangerous stint on a fishing boat, a marriage after only three months of dating, and a stab at a new life in the wilderness with his new family. After all these trials, Lance ultimately returned to his passion for dogsledding, began to gather a ragtag team of local “reject” dogs, and won local competitions.
From there, The Great Alone only gets more engrossing, and one can’t help but root for Lance as he recovers his life, and pushes himself to attain excellence in his sport. As he begins to compete in the Iditarod annually, Lance learns he has a serious form of throat cancer. While he is able to pull through, Lance’s circulation, salivary glands, and teeth are all permanently damaged, and he is advised against any sort of strenuous physical activity. True to his family’s spirit, Lance resolves to continue competing, and this quest results in a string of victories from 2007 to 2010. At this point in the film, Kohs takes us behind the scenes; we see a recovering Lance training with his dogs in the summer, having traded a winter sled for an ATV in neutral gear. Between the shots of Lance talking to each of his dogs shortly before the finish in 2007, the embrace between he and his mother after that same race, and the slideshow of photos from the moment he sees his father at the press conference, I couldn’t help but have semi-watery eyes after seeing the whole of Lance’s success. It’s all capped off by a great anecdote from Dick, in which a cashier asks him if he’s “a dogsledder like his son.”
Even with all the drama of the past, Kohs wisely makes sure to keep us in the present, as we continue to follow Lance’s path in the 2013 race. After hearing and seeing his backstory, it’s interesting to witness how he operates in the present. He takes the time to sign autographs and talk with locals, and he refuses to complain about things that I would use to excuse myself from any sort of work. He casually mentions losing his teeth to cancer, and that one of his toes is black from frostbite. In all honesty, my only disappointment with Lance Mackey may be his inexplicable support of the Oakland Raiders, evidenced by both a winter hat and a license plate bearing the team’s logo.
To borrow words used by Lance Mackey himself (in describing the surreal nature of his first Iditarod win), The Great Alone is “a vision of a dream.” With its beautifully shot Alaskan landscapes, this fantastic film brings life to the story of an athlete who deserves much more recognition for his many triumphs. With his confident, consistent directorial style, Greg Kohs recalls the epic scope and scale of films like Gladiator and Lawrence Of Arabia. That he does so without the help of screenwriters makes The Great Alone all the more impressive.
The Great Alone (80 minutes) will receive its world premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival on June 6 and 7. For more, visit the film’s website.