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The Lost City of Z: Destructive obsession can be rewarding fulfillment

Despite being promoted as an Indiana Jones-ish action adventure, The Lost City of Z is proudly a drama at its sturdy heart.

[This article contains spoiler for The Lost City of Z]

“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”, Nina Percy’s words near the end of The Lost City of Z resonate back to everything before them with spirituality, both tender and fiery. Religious or not, humans intuitively strive for the unreachable, and that’s the force behind our personal dreams and achievements for society. Based on David Grann’s 2009 nonfiction book of the same name, the movie tells of Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), the British explorer who spent most of his life fixated on finding an ancient city in the Amazon and disappeared in his 1925 expedition. Though Grann’s depiction of Fawcett raised contentious responses from several prominent figures (notably the Canadian explorer John Hemming), *City of Z *should be viewed as a James Gray’s drama movie.

In current Hollywood climate, Gray stands out as a director working passionately with original stories about people held down by their upbringing and/or background. From Little Odessa to The Immigrant (four of his five earlier movies contested at Cannes), viewers follow lost souls in the debilitating quests for fulfillment—Gray’s main characters always try to break away from the ball and chain of traditional predispositions. The auteur’s works used to portray lives on the streets of New York City, then with this adaptation, his isolationist tendency ceased its streak.

Charlie Hunnam as Percy Fawcett

City of Z had been struggling to get made for six years—in the mean time, Gray even finished The Immigrant—because it required the location in Amazon jungles. The working conditions defied his inventive passion, but on the other hand, the Edwardian era in England was a beneficial challenge to the New York-based director. Also, Fawcett’s trials and tribulations are what inspired Gray the most. As a middle-class filmmaker, Gray could relate to the central figure, comparing Fawcett’s intellectual achievements to Citizen Kane and Vertigo in the same sense of their later recognized successes.

The opening sequence is a showcase of Percy Fawcett’s talent and personality. In the Irish countryside, the young, unmethodical military officer shoots down the prey of a stag hunt, which should bring him honor and respect.  However, in the after-party, his seniors snub him due to his father’s infamous misdeeds and his lack of hierarchical status (i.e. medals). It’s an embarrassing lineage for which Percy endures discrimination. This background fits perfectly to Gray’s thematic ingenuity about people torn between family’s will, their own endeavors, and the coercion of social expectations. Here, the under-appreciated feat is further crippled by a bureaucratic mindset.

Sienna Miller and Charlie Hunnam

One year later, he still commits to his military profession. While training the new recruits, Percy—a cartographer in the past—receives a crucial mission from the Royal Geographical Society: he is to map out the new borderline between Bolivia and Brazil before conflicts ensue. Then the Society’s President, Sir George Goldie (a gentle Ian McDiarmid), promises Percy a chance to clear the family name. Once again, Gray successfully dove deep into his character’s internal conflict, as Percy is content with his loving family—his wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and firstborn son Jack (Tom Mulheron). He would have to trade his happiness and career for a slight chance to redeem his father after two years of blood, sweat, and tears in the South American forests. Our hero, burdened but inspirited, embarks on the unpromising mission with his revitalized fascination to explore. For this narrative framework, Gray compressed the information into three expeditions, each of which is a significant checkpoint of Percy’s descent into obsession (or, to him, fulfillment). The first ordeal awakens his passion, and the second hits him with a full force of tropical predicaments and psychological sprain before the last one rounds up this journey.

At first, the handsome and intense Percy doesn’t look like a breakthrough for Hunnam’s usual type, but as conflicts expand, he occupies his character more and more with remarkable fortitude and maturity. After being half-coerced to the task, Percy rises to the occasion and sees past Amazon’s commercial and imperial prospects. Somehow the jungles become an escapist outlet for him to gain footing and breathe the air of optimal freedom. Intoxicated at the uncharted world, he is driven to give his peers a more compassionate perspective. Again, it’s necessary to note the real Percy attracted so much hype from the media before Grann’s book. He was under harsh criticism about being a talentless hack and a racist, and Gray exercised his artistic license to portray a flawed yet admirable person.

Percy’s aide-de-camp on this expedition is Corporal Henry Costin—a fusion of several figures (as the real Costin didn’t join in 1906)—played by a bearded, rough-looking Robert Pattinson. The young star crafted a sense of tenacious trustworthiness into Percy’s devoted assistant—at first a drunkard then turning to a sensible partner next to Percy’s growing obsession. Rather than the Twilight saga, his complex side in less known roles (David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis) impressed Gray in this casting choice. Showing rationality and camaraderie in unfavorable scenarios, Costin is definitely one of Pattinson’s better performances.

Robert Pattinson and director James Gray

In his 2014 ode to Apocalypse Now for The Rolling Stone, Gray admired and praised Francis Coppola’s masterpiece, which later inspired shots of the wilds in City of Z. The condition in jungles is quite an obstacle for the cast and crew, but the aspiring director moderately worked within his capability to capture the tropic wilderness. The result is a setting à la Werner Herzog: sloppy terrains, risks of infection, and humid weather, and Gray omitted most of the bizarre threats from Grann’s book. What’s left is the hardship from tribesmen and Percy’s companions. This peril frames Percy into pivotal moments, illustrating a shrewd decision to bridge the language difference and an evidence of his frenetic preoccupation when the incompetent James Murray (Angus Macfadyen) condemns him (“You don’t care about us, you don’t even care about going home. You only care about your lost city.”). The psychological toll on Percy is staggering, but he soldiers on, taking little notice of its effects.

As a period piece, City of Z flourished with Gray’s attentive inclusion of historical setting into specifics, from costumes and manners to architectural details, which recreated a society during the dawn of reasons and scientific knowledge. As a crucial era, the early part of the 20th century is integral to every aspect, especially the rubber boom in South America. Forced labor, torture, and murder happened daily, particularly destructive in Iquitos, Peru. With their “white man’s burden”, Europeans thought they were spreading the light of civilization as a responsibility endowed by Gods. This situation, though less awful on screen, strengthens Percy’s ideology, which differs from imperialist businessmen. His intentions contrast the Western-centric view, so audiences root for him.

Amongst the natives

In addition, the tales of early Conquistadors, the El Dorado myths, and Hiram Bingham’s discovery of the Machu Picchu are also mentioned as a competitive push for his ambition to reach the height of knowledge and respect for tribal natives. Behind Percy’s back is the scrutiny of RGS—the snobbish and stubborn post-Victorian culture. His discovery of pottery shards meets unfair treatment as RGS members dismiss the artifacts as “pots and pans”. Against their ignorance, Percy realizes how basic objects play an important role in the foundation of civilization: well-being before higher needs.

Facing the imperialist scholars

The closer Percy gets to Z, the farther he strays from other parts of his life. Even though Nina and the kids anchor his heart in their hearth and home, the conflicts within the little family catch up to him. Setting his sight on the lost city, Percy can’t complete his role as a husband and a father of three. His wife is a strong woman on her own, but in this time’s patriarchy, an intellectually capable woman can’t provide for a household without struggling. The character of Nina was developed by both Gray and Miller from the original script, and with the latter’s incredible performance, her appearance emboldens a quality of independence and sympathy. The scene where Percy argues about his wife’s (and women’s) physical capacity is a dramatic break from their sweet relationship from the beginning, but this interesting debate is never resolved. Still, they share mutual respect. When Percy tells Jack to ask the authority, it turns out he should ask Nina.

To Percy, Z (pronounced Zed) of the vast unknown is the last piece to the puzzle of knowledge—or, at least, that of modern Western society. Through years of proximal successes and lack of professional acknowledgment, a human’s fixation is not tolerable enough and must be weakened by reality. In war time—Percy goes to the Western Front, his obsession ebbs away but is awakened by a Russian psychic before invigorated by his son Jack (Tom Holland played Jack in his adulthood). The boy used to hate his father due to his irresponsibility to Nina, but they reconcile after Percy’s eye injury. Inheriting his father’s audacity and determination, Jack reflects a kind of raw ambition and raises Percy’s moral. The third act is a bit bogged down, though Gray picked up the pace with an ethereal, heart-wrenching climax.

Sienna Miller did a thankless job portraying Nina Fawcett

Interior shots of the film are soaked in Gray’s aesthetics. DP Darius Khondji (The Immigrant, Se7en) paid attention to dimly lit close-ups and medium shots, and the color palette compliments somber nostalgia, which solemnly portrays trapped souls in a harsh world. Since crepuscular natural lighting in England presents the cozy home, the sodden and lush green of Amazon and the ashen coldness on battlefields often divert our minds from feeling too depressed.

A Romantic hero consumed by ambition,  Percy grows out of the loose obligation of lineage and embraces his life-long fervor, but struggles to balance family with professional life. To portray him, Gray—using the classic 70s narrative and sensibility—breathes affectionate authenticity into relationships to tell a touching story of love and practical zeal. Despite being promoted as an Indiana Jones-ish action adventure, City of Z is proudly a drama at its sturdy heart.