The first 20 minutes of Rebuilding Paradise are as terrifying as anything in the history of documentary filmmaking. Composed almost entirely of dashcam, bodycam and cellphone footage, we watch as the events of Nov. 8, 2018, unfold before our eyes. In a matter of hours, the small Northern California town of Paradise would be completely engulfed in flames, leaving its citizens scrambling to escape the inferno.
Moments of pure horror are captured as families attempt evacuation with zero visibility due to a smoke-filled sky completely choked of light and heat that melts cars, concrete and anything else in its path. A woman fleeing asks an officer, “Are we going to die?” while another family, racing to safety, catches sight of the large city limits sign on fire and half-gone. It reads: “May You Find Paradise to Be All Its Name Implies.”
These intense opening scenes are a gripping introduction to the immensity of the fire and set up what should be an exhilarating story of loss and rebirth — but it doesn’t quite work out that way. Ron Howard’s documentary about the aftermath of the 2018 “Camp Fire” — 85 dead, 18,000 buildings destroyed, 153,000 acres burned, 52,000 evacuated — is instead a somewhat bland mishmash of indistinct and directionless chitchat that never fully reaches the emotional high point it’s striving for. Still, even without ever living up to the power of its beginning, Rebuilding Paradise has enough working for it to warrant a look.
It should go without saying that the emotional, mental and economic impact of the 2018 wildfire on the residents of Paradise was, and remains, enormous. However, Howard’s film fails to accurately portray these emotions in a way that’s impactful or weighty. The people of Paradise are hearty and compassionate, for sure, but when it comes to displaying the pure anger they must surely feel, the director skimps.
Likewise, while blame is clearly cast on human-made and environmental sources, Howard eases back, never allowing the causes to be anything more than a footnote in the story. This presentation — or lack thereof — strikes me as one by a filmmaker who’s afraid to say what’s on his mind for fear of his film being labeled “too liberal.” The approach leaves a cloud of inauthenticity hanging over what could have been a wonderful documentary about natural disasters, their human toll and mankind’s role in them.
Nonetheless, the people of Paradise are affable enough, which makes rooting for them and their efforts easy and rewarding. Had Howard gone down a different, more vengeful path, Rebuilding Paradise may have admittedly lost some of its down-home charm — likely an important piece to hold onto for everyone involved. All told, even with its indignant edges smoothed over, the film is sure to be a crowd pleaser in an age when finding inspiration anywhere shouldn’t be discounted.
Available to rent starting July 31 via grailmoviehouse.com