The Lost City of Z will cure your everything-is-a-reboot movie blues. This is old-fashioned filmmaking, in the best sense. Writer-director James Gray has made a richly realized movie, soaked with an authentic beauty and quiet thoughtfulness that evokes adventure tales of generations past. What’s more, The Lost City of Z offers a legitimately profound, if incomplete, meditation on desire, sacrifice, and human identity. 

Based on a 2005 book of the same-name, Z tells the true story of British army officer Percy Fawcett (played by Charlie Hunnam). At the dawn of the 20th century, Fawcett is happy but restless, frustrated by his lack of military accolades and ever-declining odds of promotion. He also languishes in the shadow of his deceased father, whose reputation as a notorious alcoholic has cast a pall on Fawcett’s own ambitions. “He has been unfortunate in his choice of ancestors,” one character remarks. But Fawcett receives an unexpected opportunity to undo both of these restraints when the Royal Geographic Society commissions him to explore and map a massive, unknown trail in South America.

The expedition proves to be the turning point in Fawcett’s life. Despite pattacks from natives, illness, and the brutality of the jungle, his trip is a success and, several years later, he returns home to plaudits. But after finding archeological evidence of sophisticated pottery where allegedly no European had ever set foot, Fawcett now believes his trip could prove far more significant than anyone imagined. He’s persuaded that an ancient but advanced civilization, lost to time, exists somewhere deep in the jungle. If found, Fawcett argues, the technology and riches of such a society would dismantle long-held European beliefs about the “primitive” (read: inferior) life of indigenous people—and would change the course of science and history.

Indiana Jones and Jim Elliot

Fawcett’s tale might be described as Indiana Jones meets Jim Elliot. Though Fawcett isn’t a Christian missionary (on the contrary, he hopes his discoveries will free his fellow countrymen from the “bigotry of the church”), his passion for finding this lost city has a deeply humanitarian character. While other European explorers enslave and exploit the South American people, Fawcett treats them with dignity and uses his fame at home to preach against the brutality of colonization and slavery. 

As finding this lost city becomes his great ambition, Fawcett suffers as a husband and father. His wife, Nina (Sienna Miller, in an exquisite performance), bears the burdens of her husband’s years-long absences—both voluntary and involuntary. At one point, Fawcett arrives home from an expedition at the beginning of World War I, obligating him to a different kind of service. In a painful scene, his oldest son, Jack, angry at growing up without a father, berates Fawcett for abandoning the family. 

Failure and Achievement

Fawcett is clearly a man of courage and duty, but his prolonged absence from his wife and kids invites a deeper critical perspective on Western ideals of manhood, glory, and duty. Did Fawcett—and the many others like him—treasure the thrill of the South American wild at the expense of faithfulness to those most dependent on him? One of the merits of Z is its refusal to offer pat answers to this question. Whether Fawcett failed his family cannot ultimately be answered. Instead, Gray simply invites us to enter into the pain of a family with a faraway head, as well as the allure of achieving something truly great. 

It’s undeniably stirring to watch someone lose himself in the pursuit of a cause greater than himself. A few years ago, I heard New York Times columnist David Brooks discuss the life of George C. Marshall, the legendary Army chief of staff during World War II. Brooks observed that even when he was young, Marshall was willing and eager to make serving the Army his life’s commitment. He gave himself to the cause of the institution, Brooks said, in a way that allowed the Army to shape his identity. Though Marshall wasn’t selected to head the D-Day invasion, he left a vast if quieter legacy as an expert commander in war as well as peace. His great disappointment did not deter him from fulfilling his duties, for the sake of a world engulfed in war.

“Love de-centers the self,” Brooks concluded. 

Love and Fidelity

Of course, as sinful human beings, it’s often the case that even our de-centering love ends up oriented in the wrong direction. We may well wonder whether Fawcett’s love for the Amazon basin and his lost city absorbed the fidelity he ought to have given his family. But the beautiful and honest Z invites us to consider another outcome. Perhaps, regardless of what became of Fawcett’s ancient civilization, the true discovery was one of love—a love for the world the Creator spoke into existence, and for the humanity that bears his image by cultivating that world.

Fawcett initially desired a glory that would free him from the tarnished legacy of his father. But we can believe he found something better. Perhaps he found that beauty and meaning don’t terminate on the lamplit streets of modern Western life. Perhaps he even saw the image of God in those whom European culture had dismissed. Perhaps, had he looked just a bit harder, he may have even concluded that he is no fool who gives what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.