The timing of “Rebuilding Paradise” couldn’t be weirder. Ron Howard’s film about the 2018 wildfire that obliterated the town of Paradise, Calif., documents a civic trauma that in many ways seems a dry run for the COVID-19 pandemic. In depicting the swift, unforgiving disappearance of “normal life” and a numbed human aftermath, Howard strikes notes that seem eerily familiar after four months of lockdown and bureaucratic inertia. The movie plays like a premonition.
It’s also about a fire, of course, and — a little too tentatively — about the bigger and faster fires that will be coming as climate change remakes our planet. The Camp Fire that leveled Paradise on Nov. 8, 2018, was big and fast enough, and the opening 20 minutes of the documentary are a stunning montage of cellphone and dash-cam footage that puts you inside the town — inside the fire — as the terrified townspeople scramble to get out alive. Eighty-five didn’t. 50,000 people were displaced; 18,800 structures were destroyed. It was the worst wildfire in the state’s history and the country’s worst in 100 years. The crowd-sourced images make Howard’s 1991 film “Backdraft” look like a school play.
Howard shows up with his cameras after the flames have died down and puts us next to Americans staggering under loss. Woody Culleton, 73, talks about how he once was the town drunk, then sobered up and became the town mayor; Paradise, he says “was a place where everything came together for me, and in a day it was gone.” Young couples with kids are interviewed, and high school seniors; a local cop whose marriage is fraying under the pressure of 13-hour work days. All are grappling with lives that have become alien landscapes.
And grappling as well with the officials and institutions that are supposedly there to help. FEMA makes unrealistic demands about clearing debris before allowing citizens to move back; power company Pacific Gas & Electric — whose ancient, malfunctioning equipment started the fire — files for bankruptcy; the city council dithers about rebuilding and reopening. One of the film’s unsung heroes is school superintendent Michelle John, a force of nature doing all she can when eight of the nine local schools are lost.
“Rebuilding Paradise,” a National Geographic production that can be viewed via “virtual screenings” at films.nationalgeographic.com/rebuilding-paradise, drops in at regular intervals throughout the year following the fire, watching as some lives keep falling apart, some come back together, and some do both at the same time. Erin Brockovich turns up — the real one, not Julia Roberts — to help coach the citizens through their lawsuit against PG&E. But whether Howard intended it or not, and despite some bromides toward the end about the town “rising from the ashes like a phoenix,” the movie is frank about human helplessness in the face of disaster, and frank, too, about our unsteady perch on an Earth capable of throwing us off without a thought.
Politics are generally avoided — although the footage of President Trump offering condolences to the people of a town he mistakenly calls “Pleasure” is too good to resist — which makes the film’s last-minute widening out into a climate change warning cry feel extraneous. Howard’s not a polemicist, he’s a people person, and that works for and against him here. Some of the most interesting voices in “Rebuilding Paradise” are outsiders: Zeke Lunder, a “pyrogeographer” who patiently explains how two centuries of land (mis)management made the Camp Fire burn the way it did; Danny Davis, an indigenous American fire and fields technician who talks about how his people used controlled burning for thousands of years. The movie uses them as footnotes when they’d be better served as grounding context. “Rebuilding Paradise” is well worth seeing, but know that Howard’s taste for the upbeat keeps getting drowned out by a dire and dissonant doomsday drum.
Directed by Ron Howard. Available for virtual screening at films.nationalgeographic.com/rebuilding-paradise. 95 minutes. PG-13 (intense scenes of peril, thematic elements, some strong language).