Review by James Lindorf
In the winter of 1925, Nome, Alaska, a small mining town of approximately 1,000 people, was hit by an outbreak of diphtheria. With the town’s allotment of antitoxin in short supply and expired, the race to save the city achieved national headlines. Freezing temperatures and blizzard-like conditions make the town unreachable by sea and air. With the city yet to be serviced by the railroad, the local government decides there is only one hope, a brave group of mushers and their teams of sled dogs. Led by Leonhard Seppala and his dog Togo, 20 teams must work to relay the medicine 674 miles from Nenana to Nome before it is too late. The Great Alaskan Race tells the story of their fight to get the medication through the mountains and over Arctic ice packs while battling whiteout conditions. Brian Presley serves as one of the film’s producers, as well as its writer, director, and star. Joining Presley is Treat Williams as Dr. Welch, Henry Thomas as Thompson, the plan’s biggest naysayer, Brea Bee as a nurse and love interest for Leonhard, and Presley’s real-life daughter, Emma, as his on-screen daughter, Sigrid. The Great Alaskan Race will rush into theaters on October 24, 2019.
The diphtheria outbreak and the serum run provides everything you could want when adapting a real-life story: men braving the elements, dogs, and sick kids. The filmmakers used Silverton, Colorado and the Rocky Mountains to provide the snow and views needed to fill in for the town just south of the arctic circle. Adding believability to the period setting was the work of make-up artist Katie Jacobs and costume designer Rebecca Bertot. Jacobs not only helped with the period-appropriate looks for the town’s inhabitants but also got to do a little special effects work by creating the frostbite and skin damage that the mushers experienced. Bertot created a look that PETA would hate but would be at home in any Innuit village in Alaska. What detracts from the authenticity is the constant use of iMovie level blizzard effects. The dangers that the mushers and their teams are facing are almost entirely obscured by fuzzy snow effects that are befitting of the cheapest made-for-tv movies.
Presley has wanted to tell this story for years, and his passion for it is evident. However, Presley may have been a bit too earnest in his quest to share Seppala’s story, portraying him as perfect in almost every sense. Seppala’s only flaw is that he doesn’t get over the death of his wife fast enough to notice he is the area’s most eligible bachelor. There is no doubting the man’s bravery, but as much as Balto overshadowed him in real life, Presley’s Seppala does so in turn to everyone else in this film. The Great Alaskan Race is certainly not a bad movie. It has a great design, story, and possibly the best performance from Treat Williams in years. Though, it suffered from a small budget and being one man’s dream project that forewent depicting an epic event to focus on one man.
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