Modern Men of Persistence: James Gray's "The Lost City of Z" (2017) and John Lee Hancock's "The Founder" (2017)

Anarchy in the Amazon -- Charlie Hunnam stars in The Lost City of Z

One of the enlightened theories from economist Robert J. Gordon's behemoth 2016 book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The US Standard of Living since the Civil War, is that aside from technological advances such as flat-screen televisions, the Internet and smartphones, modern everyday life does not differ much from the way it was in the 1940's. The idea the Northwestern professor conveys is that if one today were to be teleported into a single-family home in the post WWII era, they would be equipped with basic plumbing, television, air-conditioning, refrigeration and numerous other appliances and comforts that were not bestowed upon those that lived 75 years earlier.

In James Gray's new ambitious epic The Lost City of Z, 20th century explorers are confronted by the harshness of surviving the jungle searching for the remains of an ancient civilization. The film was adapted from David Crann's 2009 book of the same name, which documented the real-life pursuits of Colonel Percy Fawcett, a British explorer who made several descents into the Amazon in search of what he believed to be the lost city of El Dorado in the depths of the Brazilian jungle. Unfortunately the GPS system has not yet been invented, so Fawcett relies on his cartography expertise to navigate through what turns out to be the Heart of Darkness.

Fawcett is portrayed by Charlie Hunnam (he also stars as King Arthur in Guy Ritchie's upcoming reboot) and at times there are flashes of Jax Teller in the Jungle, where the Sons of Anarchy patch is replaced with a compass. However, Hunnam is effective, splicing enough brood with intellect to make Fawcett a fascinating figure, a man purely obsessed with charting greatness and often fails to see the forest from the trees in his own personal life. He is largely absent as a husband and father, coming home after each journey to a wife (Sienna Miller) who has given birth to another one of their children who he is a stranger to. Despite her objections, Fawcett's wife Nina remains ever faithful to him, as is Fawcett's right-hand man, the loyal Corporal Henry Costin. Costin is magnificently played by Robert Pattinson, who is barely recognizable behind a dirty beard, potbelly and golden spectacles in the film's strongest performance.

On its surface, The Lost City of Z is a peculiar project for Gray, a director whose other films were all set in another jungle -- the asphalts of New York. But upon closer observation, Z is also a thinly veiled self-exposition of Gray and the project itself is one of compromises and not so subtle coincidences. As an auteur, Gray often gets compared to the "New Hollywood" '70's era of directors such as Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola and in Z we find Gray venturing into the jungle to make his own Apocalypse Now. But it's not just the Amazon rainforest Gray is journeying through as ironically enough Amazon Studios bankrolled the project. Gray has often spoken about the economic and creative challenges of being a artistic filmmaker in today's era of the summer blockbuster where comic book heroes and Disney/Pixar dominate the box-office and major studios operate with a Wall Street mindset.

Z was previously stuck in development hell for several years when production was under Paramount and Plan B. Gray has said that Amazon was the only company that could properly release Z, a studio throwback shot gloriously on 35mm, in today's digital landscape.  A major figure of the '70s new wave, Paramount owned the home video rights to Coppola's Apocalypse Now for many years and was the studio distributor behind his Godfather trilogy and The Conversation. Apocalypse Now was originally released by United Artists, who would go belly-up a few years later following the massive bomb of Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate -- which many claim effectively ended the new Hollywood era -- that and mega hits such as Rocky and Star Wars.

 The startling boat ride into Colonel Kurtz's compound in Apocalypse Now.

With his eyes set on ancient ruins, Fawcett finds conflict within the Royal Geographer Society who laugh off his discovery of tribal pottery as simply "pots and pans." But he finds an ally in aristocratic biologist James Murray (the brilliant Angus Macfadyen) whose wealth and stature give credibility to Fawcett's exploration. So again Fawcett ventures out into the wild accompanied by the steadfast Corporals Costin and Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley), anchored by the past-his-prime Murray. As the company of men sail the river, they wrestle with rough tides and dodge arrows as they befriend a tribe of cannibals, at which Murray has reached his limit and leaves the group.

As Murray, Macfadyen resembles a Francis Ford Coppola sweating in the jungle's heat and the Royal Geographic Society could be a metaphor Gray employs for the big-studio system that directors often clash with. Coppola's Apocalypse Now was infamously riddled with a problematic production that spread out over many years and millions of dollars. As Murray is later discovered by Fawcett and his men, laying underneath the trees, maimed by a leg wound, he has eaten up their rations and become intolerable, weighing down the entire company and screaming that he just wants to die, not unlike the struggles Coppola faced on-set with a belligerent Marlon Brando and Martin Sheen suffering a heart-attack. Fawcett sends Murray packing on horse.

Fawcett comes home defeated and when meeting with the RGS discovers Murray alive and well at the table, accusing Fawcett of leaving him for dead to which Fawcett denounces his membership and leaves in disgust alongside Corporals Costin and Manley. Before Fawcett can settle back into civilian life and bond with his family, he is summoned to report for duty as WWI rages on. The war sequences in Z are a sepia flip from the lush emerald green of the Amazon and Gray marks them with carnage as dust and smoke mist over Fawcett's face as he bellows with fury to rally the troops. Gray momentarily cliff-hangs the drama when during battle Fawcett goes down and appears to be taking his last gasps of air, until we see him in a hospital bed with his eyes bandaged over and his family crowded around him.

When Captain Willard lays in bed in a cold sweat in the beginning of Apocalypse Now as a ceiling fan mimics the flutter of helicopter blades, he stumbles around his room and confesses that he misses the jungle, that it's worse to be back home than at war. Neither can Percy Fawcett adjust to domestic life -- technology has improved and other companies have made ventures based on his research -- which motivates his eldest son Jack to convince his old man to make one last journey back into the Amazon.

Z shares not just the river boating escapades, flinging arrows and growling big cats of Apocalypse Now but its dramatic finale where Gray unleashes his biggest flourishes as Fawcett and his boy encounter not so welcoming savages are very much akin to the final act where Willard wanders into the kingdom of Colonel Kurtz -- fires raging hot, face-paint smeared, ritual dances and seances abound. It's a shame that Gray feels the need to wrap-up the film with a stereotypical biographical bow as leaving us to wonder the fate of Fawcett and his son would've been as effective as hearing Kurtz whisper "the horror" as the screen fades to black. But that sort of un-Hollywood ending is hard to muster today and the totality of Gray's film is not lost in that bit of slop. If Apocalypse Now explored the chaos of a post-modern society attempting to spread democracy in the jungle and a man rejecting modernism in favor of Valhalla and being elevated to a deity, Z shows what forces can grip men when they seek out their ancient roots.

Michael Keaton is electric as Ray Kroc in The Founder

The pedestrian analogy in regards to John Lee Hancock's latest film, The Founder, is that it's an allegory for the rise of fishy real estate shark Donald Trump into the White House, but on a more accurate, macro level the story of Ray Kroc is pure capitalism run amok -- he's the Gordan Gekko of hamburgers. Michael Keaton plays Kroc, a sleazeball salesman hawking milkshake mixers all across 1950's America and the film could've been titled "Hidden Asshole" as the true story of how Kroc schemed the McDonald brothers out of their family business to build the fast-food empire is the type of scandal corporations tend to sweep under the rug. 

Keaton brings a manic energy to Kroc, portraying the man as ever insecure and oozing cheesy cornballery, fixated on riches and just as absent from his family as Percy Fawcett as he scouts drive-ins across the country. If Bill Gates espoused that part of success is showing up, Kroc's philosophy is to never go away. When he discovers that brothers "Mac" (John Carroll Lynch) and "Dick" (Nick Offerman) have perfected an assembly line artistry in manufacturing tasty burgers and fries done fast, the franchise bulb is exploding out of his balding head. In Gordon's American Growth, he made reference to a Bloomberg article about how restaurants had come to replace the factory jobs and what Kroc would exploit and expand with McDonald's would be a tipping point in consumption; there's no Top Chef and the rise of foodie culture if it weren't for "Big Macs".

A major conflict arises between Kroc and the McDonald brothers when Kroc decides it's cheaper and more profitable to use powder for the milkshakes. The Founder presents the dilemma of growth versus quality with clever lucidity and Kroc's swashbuckling is captured by Keaton's grappling screen presence that elevates what could've been a routine HBO biopic. Kroc uses legal loopholes to eventually push the McDonald brothers out, to which the film paints him as an ego-driven Steve Jobs -- the brothers scold Kroc for calling himself the company's founder when he never had any ideas -- to which Kroc belts back that he had the vision. His foresight indeed transformed not just the hamburger joint but American consumerism as a whole, from Super Sized to Venti Frappuccinos, a decadent culture has emerged seeking out endless bonus rewards. 

Kroc understood economics as clearly as Robert Gordon or Thomas Piketty and his restaurant operated on the foundation of global expansion fueled by land acquisition and converting cheap labor into capital windfalls. But at some point the well starts to dry and there is no space left to conquer; the rapid advancements society has made are beginning to halt and it seems peril is ahead, that perhaps mankind is retreating to the savagery of the jungle. 


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