James Gray’s unendurable The Lost City of Z tells of a white man’s folly. British military officer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), wanting to improve his social status and family name, explored South America in 1925, searching for the fabled lost city of El Dorado in the jungles of Brazil. After several dangerous, unfruitful expeditions, Fawcett was never seen again. His disappearance remains one of the mysteries of Western history, but it also has a genuine connection to classic adventure fiction by H. Rider Haggard and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whose The Lost World reportedly was based on Fawcett’s field reports from the Amazon.
But Gray’s odd, uninspiring account of this true-life story is no mystery. Its lack of wonderment — also absent political confession such as Rudyard Kipling’s concept of the white man’s burden — typifies our obtuse contemporary movie culture. This includes reviewers who are so unfamiliar with both world and film history that they praise Gray as a new visionary. This glum adventure movie, tracing the follies of the British Empire, panders to those who readily curse colonialism.
So what makes that cliché unendurable this time? Any sentient moviegoer this past decade has noticed the steady decline of movie craft into TV triteness and incomprehensible narratives. Gray, like the obsessive Fawcett, attempts to create a genre of inspiration and marvel without a basic understanding of how to achieve either. The gloomy images of Fawcett accepting his mission from the Royal Geographic Society are as un-enthralling as the blurry, shadowy, disorienting jungle scenes. Gray’s poor visualization of wilderness exteriors and unfamiliar, hostile natives, some with unexplained language skills, reflects the same cynicism as the opening scenes of socialite snobs competing in English customs.
The storytelling in The Lost City of Z is so inept in terms of shot-by-shot craft that it seems unfelt. (Fawcett, on the prow of a boat, never looks toward what we see.) But this is where Gray’s usual flimsy-moody style reveals its cultural and political bias. Gray cannot critique European imperialism — the topic David Lean grappled with in Lawrence of Arabia and that fascinated Werner Herzog in both Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo – because hopelessness is part of his own post-imperial moment.
Citizen Jane contrasts Jacobs’s “hypersensitive antennae” to the rapaciousness of NYC commissioner Robert Moses. Without exploring the background of either Jacobs or Moses, Tyrnauer just simplifies them as hero and villain. The cant repeated most often is “diversity” vs. “cancer” (the 2016 presidential election is this film’s obvious subtext). What’s missing is a greater sense of human nature as manifested in different forms of civilization and recorded artistically by Dickens, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Terence Davies’s Of Time and the City, and even Isaac Julien’s extraordinary museum installation on globalism and architecture, Playtime (2013). Tyrnauer’s talking-heads method (he’s from the Vanity Fair school of agenda-driven celebrity profiles) paves over the art of the documentary.
— Armond White is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.