The Milwaukee Film Festival held its second and final screening of Spotlight Presentation “The Great Alone” last night, September 27. The documentary follows Iditarod racer Lance Mackey during his 12th attempt at the 1,200-mile dog sled race. A sold-out audience attended the screening at the Oriental Theater, and Director of Photography Ross Riege along with documentary subjects Kathie Smith and Lance Mackey stayed afterwards for a Q&A session and a Conversation Series discussion.
Lance Mackey is unique for many reasons, but most notably for his history with the Iditarod, beginning in utero. Mackey’s father, Dick, won the 1978 Iditarod and his mother, Kathie, raced while she was seven months pregnant with him. The documentary covers Mackey’s professional journey as a racer while flashing back to his life story growing up amongst the creators and winners of the Iditarod.
While it may seem contradictory, these two story lines work well to connect the audience even more to Mackey in the moment of his 12th Iditarod. The film follows Mackey during different legs of the race and when he makes a stop or takes off to the next town, the audience picks up where they left off in Mackey’s biography.
The two story lines connect as Mackey closes in on the finish line and his biographical story line approaches his most historic race when he makes his sixth attempt wearing bib number thirteen- the same number and attempt as his father during his 1978 victory. Even more remarkable is that this attempt took place after grueling surgery to remove a tumor in his neck after a frightening encounter with throat cancer.
The documentary certainly dives into the details, struggles, and excitement of the sport, but the secret stars of the film are Mackey’s dogs. Lance Mackey went into more details about his dogs and their care during the Q&A session and following Conversation, but there are several moments during the film when you either hear or see for yourself how much Mackey cares for his dogs. While some might view sled dogs as objects or tools in a sport used to gain success, Mackey puts his dogs first and loves them like family. He phrases it best himself in his final words of the film:
As long as my dogs are happy and healthy, I’m golden.
“The Great Alone” is a fascinating story of perseverance, familial bonds, athleticism, adventure, love, and inspiration. It’s rare to have a full house remain for a Q&A session after a film, but there was hardly an empty seat to be found following a standing ovation for the film’s special guests. Another surprise guest was Lance Mackey’s sled dog and costar of the film, Amp, who greeted the audience on their way out of the theater. In the unlikely event that someone would question Mackey’s treatment of his dogs, he gave advice to junior mushers during the Q&A saying,
You need to be patient. The dog only knows what you teach him. If your dog messes up, it’s your fault, not his fault.
“The Great Alone” now makes its way, along with its special guests, across the film festival circuit. For more information on “The Great Alone,” please visit the film Facebook page.