Seeking Transcendence in First Man and The Lost City of Z

Though I often mention the two in the same breath, at a glance, James Gray’s The Lost City of Z does not seem to share much in common with Damien Chazelle’s First Man. The former centers on a little known British cartographer and explorer from the early 20th century; the subject of the latter is a household name, the American astronaut whose one small step onto the lunar surface was a giant leap for all mankind. Nor are the films stylistically similar. Gray’s is stately and slow moving, while Chazelle’s is jittery and frenetic. Yet both are old-fashioned adventure epics about men who are driven to attempt great things, and both are among the more remarkable films produced in the last few years, due in large part to their uniquely vivid renderings of bygone times and astonishing locales. The Lost City of Z presents its journey from turn-of-the-century England to the lush jungle of the Amazon in picturesque sepia tones, while First Man’s voyage from midcentury Houston to the desolate majesty of the Moon is shot using different film stocks and handheld cinematography that seem lifted out of a time capsule. More importantly, both films devote a surprising amount of attention to the families these men left behind as they ventured out onto the pages of history, and both attribute this tension to man’s inherent need to seek something transcendent beyond the limits of the world he knows. Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) seeks it in the hellish depths of Amazonia; Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) seeks it in the heavens beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Though neither film is overtly religious – Chazelle was raised Catholic, but Gray is an atheist – the intense longing these men experience takes on the quality of a profound spiritual yearning. Their quests are not merely physical, but mystical.

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

Confessions (Saint Augustine)

“You cannot blind yourself to this vision. What you seek is far greater than you ever imagined… Your soul will never be quiet until you find this new place.”

The Lost City of Z

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Both films immediately establish their protagonists as men willing to go to lengths that others are not – men drawn, or driven, to push against the limits of their worlds. In the opening moments of The Lost City of Z, Fawcett takes his horse off the beaten path in order to win the prize of a hunt. First Man begins with Armstrong, flying a test aircraft, fighting not to drift into the atmosphere. The danger for Armstrong is that he will become untethered from the world, but it is precisely amidst this danger that his imagination is fired by a glorious sight: the curvature of the earth.

Though the grandeur of creation inspires a sense of wonder in both men, this alone does not account for the persistence – and, eventually, obsessiveness – of their exploratory adventures. Fawcett, whose attempts at social advancement are hampered by the family name of his dissolute and absent father, grows “impatient of lost years,” tired of the vain pomp and glory of the world. After the first World War ravages Europe and gives the lie to the promises of the enlightenment, he laments, “Our world has set itself afire. I must look elsewhere to quench the blaze.” Armstrong’s compulsive space travels stem from a similar conviction that something is deeply wrong with the world – a conviction realized in the loss of his infant daughter to cancer. Asked during an early interview with NASA why he thinks space flight is important, Armstrong offers the following fumbling explanation:

“I had a few opportunities in the X-15 to observe the atmosphere. It was so thin, such a small part of the Earth. You could barely see it at all. And when you’re down here in the crowd and you look up, it looks pretty big and you don’t think about it too much, but when you get a different vantage point, it changes your perspective. I don’t know what space exploration will uncover, but I don’t think it’ll be exploration just for the sake of exploration. I think it’ll be more the fact that it allows us to see things that maybe we should’ve seen a long time ago but just haven’t been able to until now.”

Armstrong’s knowledge of the Earth’s tragic brokenness impels him to seek solace elsewhere. From an earthbound perspective, the suffering of his family is senseless, incomprehensible; only by ascending to the heavens, seeking a higher viewpoint that might make sense of the pain below, can he find catharsis. On Earth, Chazelle’s camera is always moving, restless; inside spacecraft, it is almost nauseatingly shaky. However, during flight sequences, he mounts the camera on the outside of the ship so it is fixed, immovable; on the moon, it glides around the lunar landscape, serene and untroubled.

The physical dangers of space flight and untamed jungle are not the only obstacles Armstrong and Fawcett face, or even the most important. There is a sense that what these men search for is theirs alone, that their yearning is a burden that cannot be shared even with those closest to them. As they risk their lives repeatedly on their adventures, both men find their relationships at home strained. As husbands gradually separate from wives, fathers from children, their motives are questioned. “You don’t even care about going home,” one comrade accuses Fawcett. “You only care about your lost city.” Fawcett’s wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), is unfailingly supportive, but bristles when she cannot accompany him into the jungle, and elsewhere, his son chides: “What of your obligation to Mother, and to us, your family? The family that you’ve chosen to abandon for so many years? … You do not think of us. You think of Indians or Germans, or any other path to glory that you can find.” On the eve of the fabled flight to the moon, Armstrong is berated by his wife, Janet (Claire Foy), who demands that he prepare his children for the possibility that he may never return. Those who live in the relative safety and security of the home cannot understand why their patriarchs choose, again and again, to reckon with the possibility of death. Nor are they wrong to be troubled, for Fawcett and Armstrong possess real responsibilities to care for their families – responsibilities eclipsed by emotional distance as their respective pursuits increasingly come to dominate their lives. Are these films cautionary tales about men who isolate themselves from those who care about them, who cast aside what is truly important in a maniacal search for a hollow kind of “greatness”? I am reminded of Joshua Gibbs’ warning against the temptation to be special:

“If a man is willing to be common and to live a common life filled with times, seasons, and rituals which God makes common to all, he will submit himself to a transcendent, mysterious reality. The infinite Word entered finite history through a finite body; as a finite creature, through finite means, the common man enters the infinite. The man who is ever looking to make himself unique, to distinguish himself from others, to discern and seize the special things of the world – such a man will always isolate himself further and further until he is bereft of companions, bereft of comforts, heroes, and lovers.”

Yet though Fawcett and Armstrong can both be prickly and ungentle, neither seems to disdain common things, nor is either ultimately searching for worldly glory. Both men are quiet, humble, responsible; neither is running away from familial responsibility. Their love for their families is genuine, yet they are drawn irresistibly to something more. Scenes of domestic bliss are haunted by a looming sense of incompleteness, by the feeling that there is “Something hidden – go and find it.” Neither film condemns Fawcett or Armstrong for searching; nor does either film condemn their families for wanting to hold them back. Suffering in the jungle, Fawcett wonders, “What kind of fool am I to leave my family for this place?” Nor is he seeking to exalt himself above those who live more ordinary lives; to a son left at home as the man of the house, he says, “It’s a fine calling, no less and perhaps even more virtuous than ours.” When Fawcett’s life flashes before his eyes during a brush with hostile natives, it is his family he sees – specifically, his son’s baptism.

The Lost City of Z frequently recalls (and directly alludes to) Lawrence of Arabia, one of the most iconic cinematic accounts of a man seeking transcendence by the accomplishment of great things. Yet Fawcett is, above all else, an instructive contrast to T.E. Lawrence. Where Lawrence was an oddball who attempted to fashion himself into a mythic, defiantly larger-than-life figure and ultimately found himself lost in a cosmic void, Fawcett is a stolidly normal man who quickly gives up aspirations to earthly glory. As Nina encourages, “To look for something beautiful is its own reward.” The “green desert” of his Amazonia is often as harsh and forbidding as Lawrence’s Arabia, but rather than emptiness, it teems with life and the promise of something more – something humbling and transcendent. “So much of life is a mystery, my boy,” he tells his son, yet in his final moments he avows a faith that “Nothing will happen to us that is not our destiny” – a marked contrast to Lawrence’s assertion, “Nothing is written.”

Fawcett refers to the lost city of Z as “The glory” and “The ultimate piece of the human puzzle,” but no earthly achievement can sate man’s longing for meaning, and no earthly city can solve the mysteries of existence. “I only doubt that Z can provide all the answers you seek from it,” one colleague cautions. Though all men are called to care for their homes in this world, no earthly home can satisfy the deepest yearnings of the heart. “Let us find a home for his spirit,” intones a chieftain before sending Fawcett to his death.

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In the end, the strivings of these men point beyond the material, temporal world to the eternal glory that the deep longing of man’s heart points to. When Armstrong first sets foot on the moon, First Man shifts into a different aspect ratio – that is, the screen quite literally becomes larger. The effect is subtle, but spectacularly suggestive. As Neil looks around the moon, he sees scenes from life on Earth, before his daughter’s death – but he sees more of them. I am reminded of Lewis’ fine description of heaven in The Last Battle:

“You may have been in a room in which there was a window that looked out on a lovely bay of the sea or a green valley that wound away among mountains. And in the wall of that room opposite to the window there may have been a looking-glass. And as you turned away from the window you suddenly caught sight of that sea or that valley, all over again, in the looking-glass. And the sea in the mirror, or the valley in the mirror, were in one sense just the same as the real ones: yet at the same time they were somehow different – deeper, more wonderful, more like places in a story: in a story you have never heard but very much want to know… The new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more.”

First Man does not put Armstrong’s epiphany into words, but on the moon, he seems to grasp – if only for a moment – some fullness of reality that allows him to detach from his worldly grief. He sees the world from outside, from a transcendent perspective. Perhaps it would be reaching, but not too far from the truth, to say that he glimpses the world as God sees it.

In Lost in the Cosmos, Walker Percy writes, “[t]he successful launch of self into orbit of transcendence is necessarily attended by problems of reentry. What goes up must come down.” At the ends of their journeys, both Armstrong and Fawcett reach out to touch the wives they have left behind, acknowledging a division yet hoping for a reconciliation. In this way, both First Man and The Lost City of Z give voice to a crucial experience of the Christian life, for the Christian paradoxically experiences the kingdom of God as both present and distant, both immanent and eschatological. The dying Fawcett reaches to the heavens and sees himself surrounded by family and friends, consoled by a remembrance of Nina’s words: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

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But heaven is not here yet. Nina, her husband lost in the Amazon, waits alone till she can rejoin him. Armstrong, quarantined from Janet behind glass, separated from her by unspoken hurts, kisses his hand and touches it to the window. From the other side, she responds in kind, and her reflection catches in the glass, their faces merging – if only for a moment here on earth – in a mysterious union.

Timothy Lawrence

A graduate of the Torrey Honors Institute at BIOLA University, Timothy Lawrence teaches great books through Torrey Academy in Southern California. He writes essays and fiction and counts the Coen Brothers and George Lucas among his personal heroes.

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