In Brief: The story of how Paradise, California burned to the ground and the effort to rebuild it again.
Rebuilding Paradise opens with the city of Paradise being burned to the ground. It’s frightening stuff and if you’re not aware of what’s really going on, you’ll think these are the best special effects you’ve ever seen at the opening of a movie.
But they aren’t special effects. Not even close. The terrifying truth is that on the morning of November 8, 2019 an inferno tore through the California city of Paradise. Officials titled the blaze the Camp Fire. It killed 85 people. Over 18,000 homes and buildings were obliterated.
And when the smoke cleared 50,000 citizens of Paradise were homeless.
In the movie’s opening salvo video shot from smartphones show flames being whipped forward by a driving wind. Fire rages on all them as they desperately try to escape. You’ll hold your breath as you watch the video and hope against hope that they can to avoid a fiery death from flames determined to kill everyone in sight. The breathing you hear is heavy. You can hear panic in voice. Children are frightened. Cops and other authorities keep urging people to hurry.
Don’t take anything, they shout, just get out of you house and into your car and leave.
Watching the early videos of the torching of the town by a relentless, unforgiving fire is like watching science fiction. Living there that morning had to be very much like the very, very bad science fiction done by filmmakers of the ilk of the legendary Ed Wood (Plan 9 from Outer Space) or like something done by 1950s, 60s and 70s iconic schlockmeister, Roger Corman.
But it’s not sci-fi. It’s the real life power of fire and it is horrifying.
The Camp Fire began when a power tower owned by Pacific Gas and Electric was buffeted by heavy winds. Lines tore loose and hit the powder-dry ground. Dry brush and timber began to burn. The heavy winds caused the fire to quickly grow and blew it toward Paradise and to what became one of the most destructive fires in U.S. history.
Oscar-winning director Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind and a bunch of other, very good movies including a documentary about opera singer Pavarotti and a Beatles documentary called Eight Days a Week) put the film together using the already noted fire footage and interviews with several citizens of the city. His focus — and theirs — is to help the citizens of Paradise make sense of what happened.
With COVID we’ve all been trying to make sense of the life we have now and are constantly comparing it to the easier living we had just a few months ago. Multiply what you’re feeling and experiencing by a couple of hundred thousand. Then you might come close to understanding how those in Paradise who lost everything — including the lives of precious loved ones — were feeling a few hours, a few days, and a few months after the Camp Fire destroyed their lives.
National Geographic Documentary Films got Howard interested in the project. Part of his interest may come from having a mother-in-law who once lived in Paradise and he has relatives in Redding, California which is 85-miles North of Paradise.
As noted, the scenes of the fire and the devastation it caused and how people barely escaped with their lives are intense. They’re tough to watch.
What follows in Howard’s documentary is not. In places the movie isn’t even all that interesting. Howard and his producers follow the lives of a policeman, the city’s school superintendent, a former mayor, a young couple and some high school kids. They talk with them about the city, how it used to be and their hopes for rebuilding, and their hope for the future.
The struggle they outline in the a bit over 90-minute documentary is often touching. However, you’ll only find some of the dialogue you get and the stories they tell attention grabbing. The rest not so much.
Howard also barely touches on the people whose lives were lost.
Worse, he spends very little time on Pacific Gas and Electric and its culpability in the cause of the fire. There is an intense shot of a meeting with a PG&E representative and the people of the town but it’s not very long, and not very deep. You almost feel sorry for the guy. You know he’s the sacrificial lamb sent by the honchos above him to face the music for their ignoring the condition of their equipment and not his.
Howard also includes a few comments about global warming but you don’t get much else.
What’s really missing is the most important discussion of all. And that is the possibility of this kind of thing happening in other mountain towns around California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and some of the desert cities around the nation.
If this can happen in Paradise, it can happen anywhere.
It is incredible that the people of Paradise and the leadership of that city want to rebuild and become a town again. Kudos to Howard for painting that picture. It takes a lot of courage, dedication and energy to move forward after a disaster like the Camp Fire. But the bigger picture is the better story and — unfortunately — a better movie.
Director: Ron Howard
Featuring Paradise residents: Woody Culleton, Matt Gates, Michelle John, Carly Ingersoll, Zach Boston
Ron Howard does documentaries from time to time. Some of them have been very, very good. This one is not. It’s a fascinating story in places but overall, Howard fails to explore questions that need answers. Rate this one a Friday Flicks with Gary 3 1/2 on the o to 5 scale.
You can find Rebuilding Paradise on a number of streaming sources.
Gary Wolcott has been reviewing movies on radio, television and newspaper since 1990. He believes — and this is an estimate only — that he’s seen something close to 10,000 movies in his lifetime. Gary is a lifelong fan of films and catches a couple of hundred movies a year. He believes movies ought to be seen on the big screen and not on the small screen in your living room or family room. While he loves movies, he also says reviewing film can be a real sacrifice and that he sees many movies so you don’t have to.
He is one of KXL 101.1 FM’s film critics and joined the news staff in 2014. Gary is also the film critic for Tri-Cities, Washington’s Tri-City Herald.