Austin Film Festival 2015: “The Great Alone” spotlights a mushing family

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You think you love dogs? Well, if you think you do, you probably do, who am I to judge?

imagesBut you probably do not love dogs quite like Lance Mackey, the subject of “The Great Alone,” a scrappy, unexpectedly fascinating doc. (And frankly, your dogs probably do not love you quite the way Lance’s dogs love Lance).

And you probably haven’t heard of the guy, but in Alaska, he is a living legend, the only man to win the Iditarod four years in a row. Which is incredibly impressive, but not entirely shocking, as his father is Dick Mackey, one of the co-founders of the 1,000 mile race, which started in 1973 (Dick won in ’78). “The Great Alone” follows Lance as he attempts his fifth win in 2013.

Lance worshiped his father, who split with his “tomboy” mother (his words and not unkind ones) when Lance and his brother were young — Dad seems like a pretty tough guy who wasn’t around much. After a wild youth and somewhat aimless 20s, Lance turned to dog-racing, only to be nearly killed by throat cancer in 2001, a cancer that destroyed his salivary glands and rotted his teeth. Still, he kept racing, raising dogs that love him as much as he loves his dad and won his first of four straight in 2007, a feat that had never been equaled and is unlikely to ever be equaled. As one race expert notes, the peak moments of this race are right now and they virtually begin and end with Lance.

Director Greg Kohs’ blends gorgeous wide shots of Alaska at its most stark, dramatic, snow-covered and empty (one shot is just wide whitenss, Lance and his dogs a thin black line in the bottom of the frame) with discussions with Lance, who is both frank and not particularly judgmental about his somewhat shiftless pass. It is deeply moving to see his face light up like the proverbial Christmas tree when he hugs his father after the 2007 victory and sweetly hilarious when he tricks his closest rival mid-race into falling asleep, leaving Lance to book it on out of the rest stop at 3 a.m.

And anyone who loves dogs will have a blast: Lance keeps dozens of them (they sleep in and are covered with straw at night during race breaks) and seems to have a personal relationship with each. He never seems as happy as when he is in the middle of nowhere, in the brutal colds and frozen snow, with a few dozen of his best friends, all canine.

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