Synopsis: A moving story of resilience in the face of tragedy, as the community of Paradise, California, a town in the Sierra Nevada foothills, ravaged by disaster comes together to recover what was lost in the devastating wildfires in 2018 and begin the important task of rebuilding.
Director: Ron Howard
Running Length: 95 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: As anyone that’s gone through a tragedy like a death of a loved one can tell you, the hardest part is often not while you are in the immediate stages of grief. Yes, those first hours, days, weeks, when you’re living in the shock of the loss is painful and puts you through every kind of emotional ringer there is…but that’s just one part of the process. The second wave comes when all those people that came to your side when the tragedy occurred go back to their lives and continue on where they left off. You’re left broken and needing to find your way in a new normal and everyone else goes forward…seemingly unchanged in your eyes.
It can also be that way for major events like national disasters. Hurricanes, floods, riots, school shootings, fires, you name it. We watch these monumentally life-altering occurrences happen, often from the peacefulness of a comfortable safe distance, and send our prayers and good thoughts along with everyone else. The news media covers the destruction and its immediate aftermath but rarely do they stick around to show what really happens to the individuals and communities at large that are left picking up the pieces of a life shattered. New cycles of news take over and televisions are changed to new channels while webpages are updated with the latest celebrity gossip.
On November 8, 2018, the town of Paradise was overcome by the raging wildfire that resulted from faulty electrical work from power company PG&E (anyone familiar with Erin Brockovich should remember that infamous corporate magnate) and much of the community was lost. A total of 85 people were killed, 50,000 residents were displaced, 100,000 acres of land were destroyed, and 18,000 structures in a town that had existed over a century were wiped out. This was all broadcast for the world to see and the footage is as horrifying to watch today as it was two years ago. Also paying attention was Hollywood director Ron Howard (Parenthood) who had a family connection to the town.
Partnering with his old friend producer Brian Grazer and National Geographic Documentaries, Howard had camera crews go into the town and pick-up where the news crews left off, capturing the efforts by the town to get back on its feet. The resulting documentary Rebuilding Paradise is a strong, if occasionally rote and repetitive, testament to the strength of spirit represented in the town. What Howard and his crew captured over the course of a year isn’t your standard fix-all approach with an end result of complete reparation by the time the credits roll. Instead you see the ups and downs of the townspeople as they work through their own personal turmoil and a series of frustrating roadblocks preventing them from returning to the town they loved.
If I’m being honest, it took a while to find a groove with the documentary and I wasn’t quite sure why. The opening ten minutes are fairly spectacular viewing, even if they depict the terrifying real life Camp Fire that engulfed the city and destroyed the lives of its residents. It’s no surprise the director of Backdraft was able to cut this sequence together to be an effective and breathless opener…but it sets a strange edge at the beginning the rest of the documentary struggles to contend with for the remainder. Despite the occasional personal story that hit a chord (no spoilers but some truly unexpected events happen during the time the cameras filmed) the subjects chosen to be focal points don’t quite grab you. Even the people being followed don’t seem to always like having someone tagging along with them – it’s an awkwardness that never goes away.
What I do applaud the documentary for (as well as Howard and the producers) is that is shines a light not just on the aftermath of this devastating event but on the importance of judicial follow-up on failure and exposing companies for less than honest dealings. I imagine an entire documentary could be compiled on the PG&E section of the film alone, but Howard wisely keeps the heavier government business out of the mix and gets back to the more personal stories that have a greater impact on Rebuilding Paradise. Though it starts to feel ever so padded as it comes up on the 90 minute mark, there’s enough goodwill built by the filmmakers to keep you engaged and eventually more than a little enraged when you realize how all of this could have possibly been avoided.