In 1917, Will Stoneman's (Mackenzie Astin) father is killed in a mushing accident leaving Will to care for his family. Needing money for college and to save the family farm in South Dakota, Will decides to travel to Winnipeg, Manitoba, to take part in a dog-sled race from Winnipeg to Saint Paul, Minnesota. With the aid of Ned Dodd (August Schellenberg), the young man prepares both physically and mentally for the harsh weather and terrain throughout the race. During the race, Will becomes popular with the newspaper media as reporter Harry Kingsley (Kevin Spacey) tells about Will's strong courage in what he must do.
On the positive side, Ned dresses in Western clothes and acts about like everyone else. I think someone labels him an Indian only once. It's considered unremarkable that an Indian is living with a white family 27 years after Wounded Knee.
On the negative side, Ned's a typical sage elder full of trite homilies about following your heart and not giving up. So is everyone in the movie, so that's not an isolated flaw. And when Ned trains Will, the film accompanies it with a drum 'n' chant sound track. That doesn't quite make sense, since Ned isn't imparting some special Indian lore.
Among the dog-sledders, there's also a Native team from Canada: the Carey brothers. They're played by Native actors, which is nice. And like everyone but the snarling villain, they help the intrepid Will.
Indeed, one Carey brother races Will to the finish line after everyone else falters. It's a subtle but appropriate homage to the Native history of the region.
The rest of the movie
Overall, Iron Will engages in a lot of sports- and family-drama clichés. Here's a typical exchange:
Ned Dodd: Matters most what you think.
Will Stoneman: I think you should come, is what I think.
Ned Dodd: Be strong boy. Be brave. Your father will be with you always. He lives in your dreams. Trust the dogs. Trust yourself.
Will Stoneman: I will.
Ned Dodd: When you come to face the thing you fear let the Creator guide you.
Also, the nature of the multi-day race diminishes the drama. It's not about which dog team is the fastest, since everyone stops to rest for the night. It's about which team 1) doesn't crack up in an accident and 2) needs the least amount of sleep. If you have a mediocre team that can run an extra hour or two a day, you can win this race.
Still, like almost every sports drama, the cheering crowds at the tense finish tug at your heart. It's hard to do a big game or race that doesn't move you a little. If you're in the mood for a feel-good story, Iron Will is at least adequate. You could do better, but you could do worse.
Rob's rating: 7.0 of 10. For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.