He was the real-life Indiana Jones.
The Harrison Ford character was based on British explorer Percy Fawcett. A cartographer and archaeologist, Fawcett was obsessed with the idea that remnants of a lost civilization were hidden in the Amazonian jungles, and he disappeared in those jungles in 1925 on what would be the last of many expeditions to prove his theory. What became of him remains a mystery. Why isn’t Fawcett as well known, at least by name, as Ernest Shackleton or Amelia Earhart? His adventures in the early 20th century captured the public imagination in Europe and the United States; newspaper dispatches from the jungle kept citizens up to date. And somehow we’ve all but forgotten him.
The Lost City of Z is here to remedy that, though it’s not likely to have the impact of Raiders of the Lost Ark. This is not an action movie but an adventure of the intellect and of the heart, focusing on what drove the mapmaker and historian. Filmmaker James Gray — who based his script on journalist David Grann’s 2009 book about Fawcett — has moved far away from the New York City that has been the setting for all his previous films, including such marvels as Two Lovers and We Own the Night, but he retains his focus on character over plot, on cause over effect, on the journey rather than the destination. It’s this weighty centering of his storytelling that gives his films a genuine feel of freshness and discovery even when they cover well-trod ground, and that true of Z too.
It’s a teeny bit of a shame, then, that the weakest aspect of the film is Charlie Hunnam, who is a bit blah as Fawcett. There are a few riveting moments, but Robert Pattinson, as Fawcett’s aide-de-camp Henry Costin, creates a much stronger presence just sitting quietly in the background.
I wish Hunnam could sell Fawcett’s passion as well to Sienna Miller as Fawcett’s wife, Nina, who keeps getting left behind to raise their children on her own when he goes off for years to South America.
Gray does, at least, sympathize with Nina: As her husband heads off on what would be his final adventure, a tiny reverie sees her imagining herself walking into the jungle too. It’s tender moments of visual poetry like that that fuel The Lost City of Z’s undeniable power: of the dangerous beauty of the Amazon, of the lure of the unknown, of the draw of new friendships, which Fawcett is constantly forging with those others considered “savages.”