Monday, October 28, 2019

Movie Review: The Great Alaskan Race

The story has been told before. Hollywood has made its spin on the heroic story of the Serum Run several times over the past 90 years. Each time it has been deemed as not dramatic enough as is, and they add to the story. Each time Balto, the dog who would lead the final team on the final leg into Nome, is the named canine hero - and Gunar the heroic human.

This time the independent film with a nationwide release takes a greater look at the Serum Run canine hero Togo and his human Leonhard Seppala. This is typically not the route the story tellers go. After all, it was Balto who ran the AntiToxin Serum down "front street", but it was Togo who ran the furthest distance. Only true historians and mushing enthusiasts even seem to know the name Togo, so it was no surprise that the child I went to this movie with was confused when "Sep" kept talking about his awesome lead dog Togo.

The film starts with the note that the film is "Based on the True Story". This is Hollywood Speak for "yeah we didn't find the story compelling enough without embellishing". If you're a history buff, the "warning" can make you cringe because you expect the worst. The movie does change Seppala's story a bit with becoming a widower early in life and being angry at the world for it. It feels like they felt they needed to humanize a man that is more legend in history than human. The pacing of the film as they bring this emotional part of the story to light goes a little slow, but works to establish what motivates the film's hero.

Playing Leonhard Seppala is Brian Presley, who also wrote, directed and produced the film. He looks a little like Stephen Amell (Arrow) with the mountain man appearance. Presley's take on Seppala is as a romantic turned hard due to the loss of his wife. He grumbles, seems angry all the time, and runs head strong into danger. The one constant is his love and loyalty to his dog Togo and his daughter whom he has to save from the Diphtheria outbreak.

The movie does not fully go into the history of the dogs in the relay and the danger they faced. They do make mention of the storm and how dangerous negative temps can be, but we don't see a whole lot of the struggle the teams faced other than Seppala shivering in the cold and his face getting frostbite sores. The film only shows one child passing, but doesn't fully grasp the full impact. While there was the drama of getting the serum in time, it sometimes was lost as the film continued to focus on Seppala's grief (most of his flashbacks involve his late wife).

If you're worried about seeing trauma or death to the dogs - none of that is shown. Togo becomes tired and needs to rest in the sled but it's split second, blink and you miss it. There isn't anything that should trigger emotion based on the dogs - until the end when the real dogs are tributed through historic footage and photography. I dare any dog or mushing enthusiast not to have a sense of pride for what these four legged athletes accomplished. Working dogs are incredible.

The most positive part of the film is the spotlight brought to Togo and Seppala. Sitting with a 10 year old movie goer, she was very confused at the beginning when the focus was on a dog named Togo. After several questions of "but where is Balto" I finally leaned over and said he comes in only at the end. She was emotionally invested in the plight of the children - and was quite upset when one of them died - and cheered as the team ran into Nome (I did manage to point out that Balto was leading). When the film ends with some factoids about the dogs and mentions the Balto having a statue in New York City's Central Park, my young friend got on her soapbox and declared it completely unfair that Togo did not get the honor considering how far Togo traveled.

The film is supposed to be about the amazing feat that the teams of sled dogs accomplished in saving the town of Nome, but a lot is focused on Seppala's grief. A lot of the politics of the event were also rushed through. It would have been interesting to meet some of the other players, they did give a couple of the mushers a few lines - and some great musher attitude - but the film bounced quickly back to Seppala's plight as a father and widower. One of the more interesting parts of the story was the governor's battle over who was going to get the serum to Nome: the dogs or an airplane. The Governor of Alaska makes mention of "the lower 48" not understanding how Alaska works, while the pro-airplane guy (the news paper editor? I couldn't figure it out) kept saying that Alaska was the laughing stock of the world because they wouldn't fly planes.

Creative license is always the right of the storyteller, and while I may have done it differently, Presley's film hits the mark in most ways. The mispronunciations of Alaskan towns and villages will give Alaskans a chuckle, but will be lost on those not familiar. The historical inaccuracies are mainly ones that have been around for decades - and probably existed as history was unfolding. One fact that needs pointing out is the film claiming that the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is run each year to commemorate the Serum Run - while this "fact" is often shared, it is not true. Official News of the Last Great Race detailed the history of the start of the race in a recent article to clear up confusion.

The film is a good matinee, and one worthy of the big screen. It has a nationwide release in the states with a hope to expand into Canada judging by their comments on social media. If nothing else it's a good excuse for a trip to get movie popcorn, but I feel most movie goers will be happy with the film. I hope this review doesn't come off sounding too down on the film, because I did enjoy the movie for what it was.

Have you seen The Great Alaskan Race? Tell me what you thought in the comments below.