Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, by David Grann

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon (2009), by David Grann, a writer for the New Yorker magazine, is about the British explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett, who played a major role in mapping uncharted regions of the Amazonian jungle during the first decades of the 20th century.  Over the course of his career, Fawcett convinced himself that the fabled city of El Dorado (the city of Z), a place of vast treasures and gold left over from a native civilization of hundreds of years before, really did exist.  He made several expeditions to look for it and in the process had incredible adventures, encountered hostile Indians, some of whom he became friends with, fought off snakes, disease, and millions of insects.

Fawcett and others (including his wife) came to believe he was invincible. He was a stern man of unusual physical stamina who expected others in his expeditions to meet his standards of endurance.  Many of the men who worked for him hated him.  The rest would follow him anywhere.  Many of them died, unfortunately.  In 1925, he made his last expedition in search of the city of Z.  He took his 18-year-old son and his son’s best friend along.  They disappeared into the Amazonian forests, sent messages back to the civilized world for several months, and then went silent. They were never seen again, though Fawcett’s wedding ring turned up in a souvenir shop some years later.  Fawcett’s disappearance became the stuff of legend. It motivated other adventurers (including David Grann) to go into the Amazonian jungles to try to find out what happened.  All of them failed, and many disappeared—one estimate says at least as many as 100 died looking for evidence of Fawcett and his lost city.

Fawcett was a true-life version of Indiana Jones, but with serious defects.  He led many men to their deaths—including his son.  He abandoned his wife and family for long stretches of time and ultimately left them relatively penniless.  He exploited natives who helped him and patrons who believed in what he was doing.  He spent significant sums of money donated to his expeditions by the National Geographic Society. He represented some of the worst sins and excesses of colonialism, yet he was also a man of genius and courage (although foolhardiness and recklessness might be preferable alternatives to the word).

The Lost City of Z presents the tale of a fascinating and forbidding man.  It is a study in ambition, arrogance, delusion, the early history of South America, and of exploration. For reasons who enjoy in any combination stories of adventure, romance, mystery, deluded monomaniacs, and jungles, this book will satisfy. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Deep Water Horizon

Deepwater Horizon (2016, dir. Peter Berg) is a smooth and effective procedural film about the 2010 Deep Water Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.  Beginning the day of the incident and ending the morning after, the film traces events and decisions that resulted in the deaths of eleven men and a terrible environmental disaster.  It blames the B. P. oil company: smarmy B. P. executives are shown as fat and leering baldheaded men with slow, ominous Cajun accents.  They’re interested mainly in the money-making potential of the well, and they pressure the managers and workers on the Horizon to ignore safety protocols and warning signs.  As many have observed, the B. P. company makes a good and even deserving villain.  But the film’s easy judgments about B. P. and its fat baldheaded villains gave me pause. Few disasters are that simple. The film itself shows a great deal of confusion among the workers on the rig as the pressure in the oil well begins to build—bureaucratic confusion as well as the confusion, miscommunication, and human errors that always accompany disaster, especially when it strikes in a massive way.  One character hesitates to initiate a process that would separate the Horizon from the burning oil rig.  Another orders a subordinate not to issue a “Mayday” call because he doesn’t have authority to issue it—this is well after the rig has exploded twice, a massive fire is underway, and all hell has literally broken lose. People misread instrument readings or ignore other warning signs.  When the film needs to place blame, however, it turns to B. P.  The heroes are the men who work on the oil rig. In reality, people on both sides of the disaster made mistakes, observed weak safety standards, were not adequately trained for emergencies, operated in an atmosphere of denial that nothing could go wrong.

In general, Deep Water Horizon gives a convincing and realistic account of the disaster.  The special effects are great. You can feel the heat coming off the burning rig. Mark Wahlberg performs well as everyone’s working class American Hero.  Kirk Russell is effective as the grizzled and gruff supervisor of the oil rig—he’s given an award for his safety record even as the disaster is beginning to unfold. This entertaining film shows the heroism of the men and women who rose to the occasion, some at the cost of their lives, when the disaster occurred.

I read two excellent articles about the disaster and its causes: “Deepwater Horizon’s Final Hours,” published in 2010 by the New York Times ( --it was a source for the film, but more balanced and objective; the other appeared in Slate in 2016 Blame BP for Deepwater Horizon. But Direct Your Outrage to the Actual Mistake” (