R on Howard is known for his career as an actor in shows like “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Happy Days,” as well as his respectable resumé as director of terrific films like “Splash,” “Apollo 13” and underrated gems like “The Paper” and “Rush.” However, he’s also responsible for compelling documentaries about prominent musicians Jay-Z, The Beatles and Luciano Pavarotti.
In his latest doc for National Geographic, “Rebuilding Paradise,” Howard branches out to chronicle a more emotionally devastating subject: the deadliest U.S. wildfire in 100 years and the worst in California’s history. On the morning of Nov. 8, 2018, a faulty electric transmission line and tragically perfect weather conditions sparked what is now called the Camp Fire, which burned for 17 days and covered more than 153,000 acres.
By the time it was contained, 85 people were dead; nearly 19,000 homes, businesses, schools, etc. were destroyed (95% of local structures); 50,000 residents were displaced; and property damage was estimated at $16.5 billion. In the aftermath, Paradise’s traumatized citizens must figure out how to rebuild their lives in a town that was already struggling. Through a combination of terrifying footage of the inferno, stark images of the aftermath and moving testimonial interviews, Howard tells the story from the morning of the disaster until Paradise struggles to grasp for normalcy a year later. Along the way, the filmmaker reveals a group of resilient people who faced unfathomable tragedy and worked together to literally rise from the ashes.
While “Rebuilding Paradise” is an accurate title, the documentary isn’t nearly as uplifting as it suggests. For a filmmaker who is often tagged as corny by his detractors, Howard eschews any sentimentality here. There are certainly emotional moments to be sure — especially glimpses of small victories amid the constant barrage of devastation — but he wants the audience to experience the full magnitude of destruction the citizens of Paradise endured.
The film is not an easy watch, but it’s an important one.
The opening moments are out of a nightmare, as Howard recounts the disaster using video from people trapped in it. The footage truly looks like it was shot in Hell. We hear people scream as the tires on their vehicles explode from intense heat while they desperately try to escape the flames. We hear children sob with relief as their car emerges from total darkness into clear skies, a miraculous signal that they’re safe.
Howard also incorporates heartbreaking audio from 911 calls, in which shell-shocked dispatchers inform terrified people trapped in their homes that no one is coming to help them. I watched these horrors unfold on my laptop, with tears in my eyes and a hand over my mouth. I can’t fathom what it would be like to see this film on a theater screen (as initially intended), much less actually live through it.
The next hour of “Rebuilding Paradise” is devoted to watching a select group of residents figure out what to do next. One of them is the self-proclaimed former town drunk, who first arrived on a Greyhound bus in the early 1980s, got his life together and eventually became the mayor. One is the school superintendent, who must figure out how to educate her students when there are no buildings to put them in. Another is a police officer who devotes all his time to helping the town, despite the toll it’s taking on his marriage.
There are also interviews with several displaced families, some of whom move into campers while others relocate to FEMA trailers.
Howard also focuses on Paradise’s legal battle with Pacific Gas and Electric, the utility company whose faulty infrastructure caused the catastrophic disaster. If that name sounds familiar, they’re the villainous company in “Erin Brockovich,” which clearly went on to commit even more atrocities. (In one key “Rebuilding Paradise” scene, the real-life Brockovich works to help Paradise’s citizens.)
The documentary captures a remarkably tense meeting where a PG&E representative apologizes to the townspeople and promises to make good. He’s received as warmly as you’d expect. (Last month, the company pleaded guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter and agreed to pay a laughable $3.5 million fine.)
Despite the residents’ terrible setbacks — including a spoiler-ish heartbreaking moment that made me feel like I’d been punched in the stomach — Howard attempts to end “Rebuilding Paradise” on an uplifting note while also tying the town’s battle to an even larger war with climate change. But, sadly, that ended up making me feel even worse.
We see a handful of students begin their first day of high school in a sequence designed to show resilience in the face of adversity.
However, my stomach sank when I saw the date: August 2019.
Howard and the residents of Paradise had no clue that the COVID-19 pandemic would make the town’s struggle even more difficult.
I’m sure this review makes “Rebuilding Paradise” sound like a miserable slog, but I promise it’s a solid documentary. I’m glad I watched it: Howard proves captures the humanity at the center of a tragedy that, for most of us who heard about it, was simply one more bad headline in an ongoing flood of them.
I just wish we’d gotten a chance to see these interesting people at their best, rather than at their absolute worst.
“Rebuilding Paradise” is rated PG-13 for intense scenes of peril, thematic elements and some strong language. Now available on VOD.