'The Great Alone': Film Review

The Great Alone Still - H 2015
Courtesy of SIFF

The Great Alone Still - H 2015

Subject's offbeat single-mindedness sustains icy sports doc.

Portrait of an Iditarod dynasty.

Lance Mackey entered his first dogsled race at the age of approximately negative-two-months: His mom was racing when she was seven months pregnant with him. That sense of "Well, what else would I do?" pervades The Great Alone, in which Greg Kohs follows the four-time Iditarod winner during his 2013 try for victory number five. Crowd-pleasing if a bit less probing than it might've been, the film took home the Best Doc grand jury prize here and is well suited for small-screen play.

Mackey's father, Dick Mackey, was a racer too — Dick Mackey was a co-founder of the Iditarod Anchorage-to-Nome endurance test in 1973 — and the portrait of this archetypically Alaskan family is one of two or three unique angles the doc offers. "All I wanted to do was be like my dad," Lance says, but Dad turned out to be not much of a father, and Lance had a troubled youth to get through before finding his place in the dynasty. He also had to beat cancer: The story of how a massive tumor emerged as Lance was mid-race in 2001 is harrowing, and the surgery left him with an exposed artery that should have ended his career.

Kohs tells these stories while checking in regularly on the 2013 race. Here, we feel the arctic isolation, with the camera paying enough attention to Mackey's feet that we feel their frozen pain. We watch him lovingly tend to his "misfit" dogs and cope with surprise dental problems. At this point in his career, the racer is treated like a rock star at pit stops — even at 3 a.m., locals young and old come to cheer him on. As he drops behind other racers — he's in 16th place with 123 miles to go — the questions keep mounting: Can he make up enough ground to put a fifth trophy on the mantel? How many wins does he need before he can give up this punishing sport?

Director-Screenwriter: Greg Kohs
Producers: Jonathan Hock, Greg Kohs
Director of photography: Ross Riege
Editor: Debbie McMurtrey
Music: Craig Minowa
No rating, 81 minutes