‘Rebuilding Paradise’: Film Review | Sundance 2020

A community struggles to pull itself back together after the Camp Fire of 2018 in Ron Howard’s latest documentary, ‘Rebuilding Paradise.’

The most lethal and costly wildfire in Californian history, the Camp Fire killed 85 people and turned most of Paradise, once a community of 26,000 people in Butte County, into ashes in practically a single day, Nov. 8, 2018. But with environmental catastrophes, both natural and directly man-made, erupting around the world, throwing up outrageous new superlatives and statistics of horror daily — a billion animals killed in Australia’s wildfires last month; 2019 marking the highest rate of deforestation of the Amazon in a decade — it’s not surprising that we all battle a feeling of stunned, numb exhaustion, unable to take in what this means on a human level.

That makes Rebuilding Paradise, an empathic, thoughtful documentary directed by Ron Howard, which follows a well-curated selection of Paradise residents through a year of recovery after the fire, all the more welcome. It brings into focus not just the painful losses of loved ones and homes, but the sheer daunting scale of logistical planning, fundraising and negotiation with bureaucracies needed to rebuild the community.

The Bottom Line

A sincere and skillfully assembled tribute to a community’s fortitude.

Backed by National Geographic and clearly largely intended for TV consumption, the film skews toward a more palatable, optimistic message. It seeks to reassure viewers that, given enough community pride, spit, elbow grease and a surging soundtrack by Hans Zimmer and Lorne Balfe, anything’s possible — making Howard a sort of 21st century successor to mainstream filmmakers making uplifting propaganda in troubled times, like some kind of Frank Capra for a digital age.

That’s probably a good thing ultimately, although more cynical viewers steeped in the discourse of environmentalism might feel it’s all a little too happy-clappy and sentimental, barely addressing with more than a mere whisper questions such as: Just how advisable is it to rebuild towns in the danger zone like Paradise at all? And aren’t there much more profound problems about the glacial pace of policy change we should be addressing here? What would Greta Thunberg say?

But putting all that heavy stuff aside, the film assembles a likeable assortment of Paradise residents with personalities strong enough to keep viewer attention for the feature length. Working chronologically through the story, using abundant amateur footage shot on the ground at the time, archive news footage and material gathered later by Howard and his team, the film introduces us to people like square-jawed Matt Gates, a local Paradise police officer, trying to help neighbors get to safety on Nov. 8 even while their own homes go up in flames and then coping with the aftermath. The dash-cam footage of folks driving through this inferno never ceases to instill awe and terror, especially when bedded by the sounds of frightened passengers offscreen.

The PTSD after the event and daily strain of the job eventually takes its toll on Gates’ marriage, as other nuclear families tracked here just manage to hold it together as they move from shelters to temporary mobile homes provided by FEMA while deciding whether they should stay and rebuild in Paradise or move away altogether, maybe even out of state.  

One of the most engaging participants is school superintendent Michelle John, who works tirelessly to get fire-damaged Paradise High School sports ground ready so that the 2019 crop of graduating seniors can have their commencement ceremony there. (Go Bobcats!) While her sweet husband Phil offers support in the background and dons the bobcat mascot costume for fundraisers, Michelle beavers away at getting damaged trees cleared and navigating safety regulations with a cheerful efficiency that’s a tribute to the fortitude of those like her who run our educational bureaucracies.

It’s to the film’s credit, in fact, that it’s not afraid to get into the weeds as it observes town hall meetings with class action lawyers — Erin Brockovich herself shows up to help the townsfolk sue for damages — and shamefaced PG&E spokespeople. You can’t help admire the latter’s willingness to at least face the ire of the crowds and take the abuse for the company’s negligence, which ultimately was the cause of the fire. At times, the movie almost feels like a pop version of a Frederick Wiseman documentary as it steeps itself in the dialectic arguments and logistic challenges facing various interested parties as the town strives to rebuild.

Undoubtedly, there will be many more documentaries like this to come, ones that seek to lay out the extreme emotional and financial costs that such disasters create. The last minutes of the film throw in footage of what happened just recently in Australia, while local kids in Paradise reach out to help victims of disasters elsewhere and beyond. In the future, all disasters and all the politics surrounding them will be local, something that touches all our lives.

Production companies: Imagine Documentaries, Imagine Entertainment, National Geographic Films
Director: Ron Howard
Producers: Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Xan Parker, Sara Bernstein, Justin Wilkes
Executive producers: Michael Rosenberg, Louisa Velis, Carolyn Bernstein, Ryan Harrington
Co-producer: Lizz Morhaim
Cinematographer: Lincoln Else
Editor: M. Watanabe Milmore
Co-editor: Gladys Murphy
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)

Music: Hans Zimmer, Lorne Balfe

95 minutes