Overview: In the early 20th Century, a determined explorer makes three separate journeys into the Amazon in hopes of finding a lost civilization. Bleecker Street/Amazon Studios; 2016; PG-13; 140 minutes.
This Time, It’s True: I never liked that old dismissal, “They don’t make movies like that any more.” The sentence is almost always cheap and empty, and frequently a testament only to its speaker’s nostalgic hindsightedness. Most of the things that were great about movies then, no matter where in history one might place “then,” are still good about movies now. So it’s a a strange but necessary place for me to start when discussing James Gray’s new film The Lost City of Z (based on the book by the same name by David Grann), but it has to be said. They don’t make movies like this any more. They haven’t in some time.
It can be sensed pretty quickly, in the opening scene in fact, wherein Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) comes through victorious in a competitive deer hunt in a stretch of immediate boastful cinematic grandeur. It’s an early sweeping vision of green hillside hunting grounds tossed up by racing black and brown horses, Fawcett a hero shown with posture and silent dignity and pursued by the opening segments of a continually rousing score from Christopher Spelman. And, like the ballroom dances that follow up Fawcett’s victory in celebration, the rest of the film only continues this antiquated but vaguely familiar and hypnotic grace.
The Lost City of Z isn’t rendered exceptional by its being a period piece with top shelf historical production design or even by its pursuit of an epic, intercontinental adventure. It’s more than that. It’s a perseverance of vision and scale, a steadfastly held scope that never loses its heroes’ arcs, its historical context, or its thematic throughlines to its adventure beats. When a boat full of explorers fight rapids, a lethal arrow attack by Native Amazonian people, and even a school of vicious piranhas—all scenes whose presentation is as thrilling as Hollywood is likely to deliver this year—Gray holds his course where most modern large scale blockbusters would indulge and flex. In a film as rich and dense as Gray’s, there’s a commendable sincerity to that sort of determination, as his staying the course allows for a more substantial and lasting final product, the likes of which recall the best of David Lean and not much else since.
Authoring Honor: The whole exercise, though carrying heavy philosophical weight and authoring historical text is, at its foundation, the story of one man’s journey and fate. And there are two elements which make Fawcett a fascinating beating heart to this film. The first comes in Gray’s scripting (and Grann’s authoring) of Fawcett. The film sees Fawcett make three expeditions into the Amazon. The first is a matter of self-interest and duty, a legacy-obsessed call-to-task that has the medal-less soldier pursue rank, decoration, and the repaired reputation of his family from the damage done by his alcoholic father. On this journey, Fawcett is enlisted to survey the land along the Amazon river to prevent a border war. On this journey, Fawcett’s grit, dignity, and strength are revealed as inherent, separate from and preceding his ambition of finding the mythological city, which he only comes to believe in at the very end of a journey he barely survives.
His second journey is his most complexly ambitious. While still, in some smaller superficial measure, an ego-driven decision, Fawcett’s return expedition is painted, through casual social observation and delicately framed conversations about non-white, non-Christian natives and incompetent parliamentary government and female equality, with a desire to fix the way things are. In an impassioned speech in front of a room of government officials, Fawcett seems to believe in (if not directly suggest) the progressive notion that the flaws and impurity of their current society might be fixed by broadening their historical understanding of the world and its people. Of course, the notion is roundly rejected, just as is the existence of Fawcett’s fabled city, but all of it—the contextualization, the speech, and his government’s dismissive reaction—is so finely measured that it lends a certain dignity to Fawcett in his unsuccessful second effort without a single nail having to be hammered into place.
Between the second and third journeys, Fawcett fights in a war. Before a particularly gruesome battle, a Russian fortuneteller explains to him that his soul will never find peace until he finds the city, but once he does, he will “illuminate the world.” This moment marks a solidification of his newer, implied, almost altruistic vision for his search. But after a war injury nearly permanently sidelines him from exploration, Fawcett’s oldest son Jack (Tom Holland), who in his teenage years violently criticized his father for abandoning the family for his pursuit, convinces his father to accompany him on a last effort. It is in the third journey where we see the complete re-emergence of all of the narrative and thematic threads and Fawcett’s ambitions. The father-and-son team seek to continue reaching for the father’s more global-minded goal, but Fawcett also uses this third opportunity to pursue his destiny and to remedy his family’s legacy by proving himself an honorable father to his son. All of this is observed rather than explicitly or implicitly served up by Gray. History loses track of the Fawcetts on this journey, and that departure from fact into speculation allows Gray his best stretch of filmmaking here, a hypnotic climactic segment that affords everything else in the film a malleability in spiritual and thematic interpretation.
Performing Honor: Fawcett’s first venture into the Amazon was in 1906. His third and fatalistic effort was in 1925, an obsession of nearly two decades. I mentioned earlier that there were two elements that make Fawcett fascinating as the centerpiece of the film. The second element is the performance of Charlie Hunnam who, over the years, has been equally celebrated and derided for his leading man abilities. In Lost City of Z, Hunnam is given an unenviable task and comes through as an undeniable A-list star. It could be said that having to act honorably is one of the most difficult performance requests to make of a screen star, to use performance more than story to project dignity and strength in a character without having it framed obviously by narrative events. Fawcett isn’t a perfect man, and his imperfections aren’t remedied by the script. But he is notably, through Hunnam’s portrayal, a good man, a man of dignity, strength, and loyalty. And with the minor, partial exceptions of his appeal for his second trip and a mid-way scene in which he resigns from his position in defense of his team, Fawcett is given no opportunity to speak in display of his inherent goodness. The rest lies in Hunnam’s presentation of Fawcett’s decision-making, inter-character reactions, and short-lived contemplations. His sense of a more classical and less explicit honor is hard earned through an actor finding his peak.
Of course, it would be dishonest to not point out that that same honor is almost communal in its development. Fawcett is surrounded by a family and teammates of similar fabric, both in terms of design and performance. They become better people by knowing him and he through them. As Percy’s wife Nina, Sienna Miller gives the best performance of her career, a steadfastly loyal and intelligently involved companion of his research and ambition. Hidden within a heavy beard, an understated Robert Pattinson stars as Fawcett’s expedition assistant Corporal Henry Costin. Pattinson, in Costin’s quiet nervousness and affectionate commitment to his leader, almost invisibly adds an immeasurable amount of tension to proceedings and emotional weight to their successes and failures. And Holland adds extra layers in reflectively understanding Fawcett and framing the magnitude of his journey. Each secondary character is both a measurement of and influential factor towards the development of Fawcett’s own honor and heroism. Watching the film, it occurred to me that none of these three are given their nomination-ready acting clip, but all should have earned awards attention for their turns.
Overall: The Lost City of Z is not an easy film, not in the way we have come to think of standard adventure movies in the last few decades. Its hero is increasingly honorable without being immediately (or perhaps even eventually) lovable, admirable without earning moral perfection or narrative victory. There’s no pre-packaged thematic summation or connect-the-dots contemporary allegory. It doesn’t even gift its audience with a singular targeted emotional reaction; this isn’t a film of hope, triumph, inspiration, or defeat. But it instead manages to comfortably fit all of that for those willing to work to properly navigate and survey its rich, lively landscape. It’s the kind of film that, last year, we might have said that they don’t make any more, but now James Gray has, and it very well might prove to be a timeless classic.
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Featured Image: Bleecker Street/Amazon Studios