Appellate Judge James A. Stewart has a warm spot for cold-weather documentaries.
If you have any doubt that life is harsh in Alaska, consider the Iditarod. The annual race follows the Anchorage-to-Nome path over which mushers carried medicine during something people in other places would want to forget, the 1935 diptheria epidemic. In Alaska, the diptheria run has become a big event, with a prize of "sixty-nine grand and a pickup truck."
Thom Beers, the man behind Ice Road Truckers, moved over to Alaska to give the Iditarod the same sort of all-angles examination for Toughest Race on Earth: Iditarod.
Facts of the Case
Toughest Race on Earth: Iditarod features six episodes on one disc:
• "The Last Great Race"
At first, it was hard for me to get into Iditarod. There's more activity surrounding the dog sled race than around the truckers, so it takes a while to get involved. Once you do, however, it provides the same sort of fascinating portrait of hard-driving people carrying out a tough task. Actually, these are harder-driving people than the truckers—or at least more singleminded.
As musher Martin Buser puts it, "You're racing when you're racing, but you're also racing when you're cooking your meal or when you're massaging your dogs." In other words, there's no time to blow up or argue with your fellow mushers, and if you're stranded or stalled, you've still got work to do.
Thus, you won't see many spectacular displays of anger, and there's little to bleep. One musher, Jeff King, even tells a cameraman, "I'm not real interested in helping you make some drama." He's not loud, but he's as loud as it gets on Iditarod. The narrator tries to build tension a lot with lines like, "This chess match is about to become a street fight," but things never quite boil over. In the episode that does stress the rivalry, "The Great Escape," Lance Mackey sneaks out of the rest station while King is sleeping to get ahead of his close rival, a neat trick when you've got a camera crew following you.
More often, the good moments are joyous, as when Dee Dee Jonrowe is surprised to learn she's the first to reach Cripple, which earns her some gold nuggets.
The last episode works well, continuing down the line after the winner races in to track the people who were further behind so viewers get to see the race as it looks to mushers all the way down the line.
The disc looks good for the most part, the Alaskan scenery breathtaking. Night scenes are grainy, though. Natural sound means some dialogue is lost, but subtitles are included.
A bonus disc features Expedition Alaska. It doesn't deal with the Iditarod, but features scientists risking their lives to show that the globe is warming. I'd have rather learned more about the Iditarod.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The lack of commentaries or extras on Iditarod is disappointing. It would have been good to see how Thom Beers' crews followed the race. Was it from the checkpoints or going the distance with the mushers? There's also, I'm sure, a lot more history to be told.
I did pick up on the fact that the original title, as listed on IMDb, is just Iditarod. Did they really need to add that it's a tough race for the DVD title? I think most people knew that.
Thom Beers' Toughest Race on Earth: Iditarod is a bit warmer, if anything up north rates the word, than his Ice Road Truckers. With the intensity and focus the mushers bring to the race, it's more about people fixed on a goal than about Alaska or harsh conditions. As such, it's more of an inspirational story.
Not guilty. The chess match is about to become some very good television, even if it never becomes a street fight.
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