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Jungle Fever

by Ross Douthat

‘On this river, God never finished his creation.” So says one of the natives in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Werner Herzog’s fevered early-’70s nightmare about a mad conquistador in Amazonia, searching for El Dorado and finding only baleful, stagnant jungle. It’s a movie that haunts The Lost City of Z, which is about a kind of spiritual descendant of the conquistadors, the English explorer Percy Fawcett, whose early-20th-century search for a lost civilization in the rain forest captivated the world — right up until he (and his son) vanished without a trace.

The source for the film is the recent book by The New Yorker’s David Grann, which interweaves the history of Fawcett’s expeditions with Grann’s attempt to follow in his footsteps. Perhaps understandably, the film carves away the modern framework, giving us instead what amounts to a straight biopic of Fawcett, from his beginnings as a soldier-turned-cartographer to his mysterious celebrity-explorer end. But the result suggests why Grann made himself a character: Without a link to the present, the movie’s story starts strong and then fades out, its power evanescing with its subject.

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