If you are going to watch The Lost City of Z expecting some sort of Indiana Jones sequel, don't bother.
Based on the best-selling nonfiction book by David Grann, the movie moves at a stately pace, with very few action-packed scenes. Perhaps the most animated scene happens during a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society, when the protagonist, the British explorer Percy Fawcett, is trying to convince his loud and skeptical peers that there is indeed an advanced civilization lost in the middle of the Amazon jungle, somewhere between Bolivia and Brazil. Fawcett, in a masterful performance by Charlie Hunnam, is after a patron to fund his return to the forest, after a first visit gives him a glimpse of the hidden wonders of a lost people. Society calls them "savages," while Fawcett is convinced of their sophistication. They are the models of a civilized world, not the Europeans with their prejudices and pompous attitude.
Beautifully shot, the movie brings forth some of the dominant themes of a rapidly changing world at the brink of World War I. Fawcett's wife, Nina, determined and devoted, represents women fighting for their independence. Sienna Miller dominates the screen whenever she appears, at once stoic and fierce. The noble grandiosity of the Amazon vastness is contrasted with harrowing scenes when Fawcett serves as a commander during WWI, when all we see is the grey and destitute devastation the so-called civilized Europeans perpetrate on their land and each other. Trees are burned to stumps, the land is barren, sunken in deep, life-sucking mud. Death is everywhere, grimy, poisonous, relentless. Lives are wasted for a few yards of advance, while poison gas reigns from the skies, killing and blinding.
But the central theme of the movie is Fawcett's heroic passion, his absolute conviction that he must find the lost city. "Z," he claims, will put an end to the debates about how advanced the people of the Amazon could be, erasing the notion that they are "savages." The movie pays tribute to the explorer spirit that drove — and still drives — so many to push the boundaries of the possible and, in doing so, to open doors for the rest of us. In this, the explorer represents the open scientific spirit, driven almost to the verge of madness by the faith of a conviction.
Fawcett returns again and again to the jungle, flanked by his aide-de-camp Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), facing nature's ruthlessness in its many forms — from black panthers and snakes to tropical illnesses to piranhas to apocalyptic downpours to natives defending their lands. At the time, rubber is black gold, driving the exploration and colonization of these parts. Fawcett understands this but his focus is elsewhere: It's the quest that matters, the search for convincing clues, the unshakable conviction of imminent discovery, the potential for a worldview-changing scientific find.
In this, every scientist has a bit of Percy Fawcett, going after the thrill of the new, the surprise of what lies beneath the veil of the known. There is an element of greed and personal glory, of course. But those are secondary to the genuine need to know, to make a difference, to leave an imprint in the vast history of knowledge.
Coincidentally, Wednesday night NOVA will be re-airing The Arctic Ghost Ship, about the ill-fated expedition to find the elusive Northwest Passage led by British explorer Sir John Franklin. We owe a major debt of gratitude to these passionate spirits who risked their lives to expand the boundaries of the known.
However, we must also be wary of sensationalist hype surrounding Fawcett and his exploits. Canadian explorer John Hemming wrote a scathing review of The Lost City of Z and of Fawcett's career, arguing with credible authority that the whole thing was a major Hollywood fabrication that amplified the already exaggerated account in Grann's book. Hemming makes it quite clear that Fawcett was no hero or brilliant explorer.
What's disturbing here is that the movie claims to be telling a story based on true events, while blurring the boundaries of the credible.
The best thing to do in this case, I think, is to take the movie as a metaphor for the explorer's spirit — and enjoy the ride. Don't take the biographical details as serious history, but be inspired by the passionate drive that propels a courageous few (including Hemming, a serious explorer with many books and findings to his credit) out there into the wild to discover the new for all of us.
Marcelo Gleiser is a theoretical physicist and writer — and a professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is the director of the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth, co-founder of 13.7 and an active promoter of science to the general public. His latest book is The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected: A Natural Philosopher's Quest for Trout and the Meaning of Everything. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser