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Review: In 'Anchorage Is...' a flattering, incomplete look at city's history

  • Author: Peter Porco
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published April 2, 2015

"Anchorage Is…", the official documentary film celebrating the 100th anniversary of the city's founding on the banks of Ship Creek and everything that's occurred here since, proved itself extremely popular last month during its premiere showing at the Bear Tooth Theatrepub.

The show quickly sold out on its first weekend and was brought back for a second three-day run, when it was again a smash hit. If you missed it, you'll get another chance at the Bear Tooth this coming weekend. Meanwhile, the movie of a little more than an hour in length will be available on DVD in June and can be pre-ordered now.

The enthusiastic welcome given to "Anchorage Is…" may be explained by its flattering portrait of the city and its people. Among its appealing features are the early still photos and movies of Anchorage's pioneers whose faces compel us to imagine their dreams for a city that had only just sprung up out of the forest.

The old black-and-whites appear not just in the movie. Prior to showings of "Anchorage Is…" at the Bear Tooth, many additional old Anchorage photos were projected on the screen with live commentary by one of the filmmakers, Todd Hardesty, who said he found quite a few of the shots recently on eBay.

In trying to distill the character of who we are -- the hundreds of thousands who have lived here since 1915 -- the resolutely upbeat documentary implies that we're tough, we're game, we're fun and forward-looking, and we make do cheerfully in a challenging environment. The movie, of course, ignores the fact that the same can be said of countless other Alaskans.

In "Anchorage Is…" the presentation is that of a large selfie, a giddy, what-a-party-we're-having glance at the expected highlights of Anchorage history, together with summary comments delivered by well-lit, smiling old-timers like Vic Fischer and Arliss Sturgulewski.

Hardesty, a former Anchorage TV journalist who produced and directed the movie, is the owner of Alaska Video Postcards, a business-promoting production company. Indeed, "Anchorage Is…" snugly fits the mold of a slick product that is more convention-bureau boosterism than an interesting historical look at the town.

The film's writer and narrator is John Larson, who worked here for a number of years as a TV journalist before leaving Alaska in the mid-1980s. As far as I know, Larson has not lived in Anchorage for nearly 30 years, so perhaps that's the reason the movie's writing is glossy and often insubstantial.

There is some good material. In addition to the captivating visual record of Tent City, we learn that Anchorage welcomed automobiles right off the bat, though it had scarcely any roads, and staged foot races and played baseball in its earliest years. Fairbanks historian Terrence Cole has eye-opening things to say about Anchorage and the impact on the city of the First World War, which drove immigration to Alaska.

The movie's emphasis on Anchorage's amazing diversity, particularly in recent years, and on its Native heritage is smart and up-to-date. Many of us already know, of course, that Anchorage celebrated Alaska statehood with a bonfire for the ages, endured a massive earthquake, and erected big, shiny office towers owned by several major Native corporations whose logos adorn them.

But as a historical documentary, the movie's omissions are glaring.

"Anchorage Is…" says proudly that this is "Alaska's greatest city" but it avoids any discussion of what our relationship is with the rest of Alaska. You would never know from this movie that in many respects Anchorage is the de facto capital of the state and that non-Anchorage politicians and other leaders are often wary we'll take over entirely.

In fact, the idea of power -- vested, for one very large example, in the big oil companies quartered here -- is not discussed at all (some of the major companies are among the film's sponsors).

We learn about the great Project 80s civic buildings that in the 1980s came into being fully paid for, thanks to state revenues from oil flowing through the new trans-Alaska oil pipeline. But we hear nothing about the crime, cocaine and shoddy boom-town development that hit Anchorage in the '70s and '80s because of the pipeline's construction. There's nothing about the severe economic bust of the mid-1980s.

Naturally, there's only a mere hint of the city's disregard for its Native population and nothing about its homeless residents or about Bill Allen and his army of corruption.

What the Depression did to Anchorage, if anything, is unexamined. Truly unforgiveable is that World War II, arguably the single greatest event in the city's history beyond its founding, receives a scant moment or two. Nor is there a whisper about one of America's last great newspaper wars, the 13-year struggle between the Anchorage Times and Anchorage Daily News.

There's a bit about the Fur Rendezvous and dog mushing, but you'll see nothing about the Anchorage Glacier Pilots, the Anchorage Aces, the Seawolves or the Great Alaska Shootout. Nothing about the Anchorage Symphony, now in its 70th year, or Anchorage Community Theatre or any live theater, or any of the arts, for that matter. And nothing about the civic spirit of the town that's evident every spring as volunteer bands of city residents pick up a winter's load of trash along its roads and highways.

Can anything be more representative of Anchorage -- its creativity, its athleticism, its spontaneity, its irreverence and sheer nuttiness -- than the Anchorage Ski for Women? Nothing about that here. Instead we see former city mayor and governor Tony Knowles skiing all alone near a sign identifying the track beneath his skis as the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail.

And we get snowmachines -- boy, do we get snowmachines -- big, brassy iron dogs scooting along powdery snowfields, acrobatically copping air, and none of it happening in Anchorage.

"Anchorage Is…" also happens to be bookended by a heavy dose of insufferably cute shtick involving a young non-white boy and non-white girl that I found lame, insulting and totally out of character with a movie that calls itself a documentary.

Hardesty and Larson have spoken about how difficult it was to whittle 100 years of history down to an hour and change. No doubt about it. But to reckon with limits is to make choices, which is to engage the raw material with your knowledge, your craft and your values.

The evidence suggests this movie was conceived wrongly and made on the cheap. Few cities in the entire history of the world experienced a first 100 years -- all the way from wilderness to Wi-Fi cafes -- like Anchorage. Don't we deserve better?

Peter Porco, a former Anchorage Daily News reporter originally from New York City, has lived in Anchorage for 34 years. Reach him at play@alaskadispatch.com (subject line: Peter Porco).

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