The first thing you realize during the initial moments of Ron Howard’s “Rebuilding Paradise” — a broad yet sobering National Geographic documentary about the 2018 Camp Fire that bellowed into the deadliest wildfire in California history — is that you can’t imagine what the blaze was like. Not really. And not for lack of trying. You probably saw it on the news a couple of Novembers ago, and stared in disbelief at the ash heap where the foothill town of Paradise used to be. There were helicopter shots of an unslakable inferno, social media videos of an orange sky, television anchors walking through the colorless rubble that was left behind. Eighty-five people died across 240 square miles of scorched earth, and the apocalyptic imagery made it seem like those numbers were still far short of the worst-case scenario.
But the home video clips that Howard includes here — assembled into a nine-minute prologue that captures the mayhem of that sunny November morning like a Hollywood disaster movie shot with the dangerous immediacy of a war doc — make for a different experience. A dog barks at nothing. The radio warns of an urgent fire up at Camp Creek Road. A school bus is stopped in the middle of the street. “Honey, there’s all sorts of stuff falling out of the sky,” says one of the sequence’s chorus of disembodied narrators. “Is it raining?”
The fire sweeps in like a hurricane; like a backdraft that’s almost the size of New York City. Tires pop, and the flesh on people’s arms starts to melt. Brimstone turns the air black, and a young boy asks his dad “Are we gonna die?” It’s an eclipse saturated with a lava lamp glow of brimstone, and you gasp when someone points out that it’s only 11:38 a.m. These people aren’t just scared, but also confused; even though the area had a long and violent history of fires, it never seems real when your home suddenly goes up in smoke. The footage is horrifying, even at a time of such intense climate change that natural disasters can seem as regular as the weather. “Rebuilding Paradise” doesn’t make it any easier to imagine what it would be like to be in the eye of a cataclysmic firestorm, but it makes it easier to understand that some things are unimaginable, even if they’re very real.
The rest of Howard’s documentary — a largely observational piece that’s punctuated with a handful of talking head testimonials, but never sees or hears from its celebrity director — offers an uneasy portrait of what “rebuilding paradise” really means for the people who lived there. Howard burns through the newsiness of it as fast as he can (remember when Trump donkeyed in and referred to the town as “Pleasure” on national TV?) in order to shift attention away from the spectacle of it all and focus instead on what happens to places like this once the spotlight gets pointed at some other tragedy somewhere else.
We meet reformed town drunk Woody Culleton, who got sober in Paradise and went on to become its mayor. We meet Matt Gates, a square-jawed police officer whose ride-along scenes are shot like the saddest “Cops” episode of all time. There’s the local superintendent, who knows that a town — and possibly a country — is only as strong as its school system. There’s the woman whose entire collection of shot glasses melted in the blaze, except for the one with John Wayne on it. The Duke may have been problematic, but he’s durable as hell. The people of Paradise seem just as resilient, even as they’re forced to live in the tent city the government pitches for them in a Walmart parking lot. Some are waiting for FEMA’s permission to go back and dust off their property, but many others feel like they have nothing to go back to.
Howard untangles the knotted emotions of that awful predicament by focusing on the bureaucracy involved in starting over. The forensics make clear that the fire was caused by errant sparks from 100-year-old PG&E equipment (the utility neglected to cut power that morning despite tinderbox conditions), and exacerbated by a climate-related drought; the October rains that used to dampen the area don’t arrive until Thanksgiving anymore, if at all. Howard doesn’t have the patience to unpack the class-action lawsuit that ensues — or to really dig into the frustrations of dealing with FEMA, a government agency that naturally turns the clean-up process into a Kafkaesque headache. It’s hard not to imagine what kind of field day Frederick Wiseman might have had with the same material.
Some moments are too raw and uncomfortable to deny, and a natural storyteller like Howard is smart enough to get out of their way; the scene where a single, twerpy PG&E representative apologizes to the survivors on behalf of his company is a painful, damning sketch of capitalism at work. Other moments are short on essential context. A cameo from PG&E ultra-pest Erin Brockovich does more to indicate the general tone of Paradise’s town meetings than to explore what the local people are hoping to achieve in court — what kind of settlement they’d need to feel okay about starting over. Is rebuilding Paradise even the right thing to do?
In a way, that’s also the central question of the film, and it’s one that can only be asked in the most rhetorical of terms. People are resilient, and the people of a small town like Paradise maybe even more so than the rest of us; most of them know each other by name if not also by reputation, and there’s a sense that who they are is somewhat inextricable from where they’ve lived together.
On the other hand, Americans have a long tradition of confusing obstinance for strength, and some of the Paradise legacies understandably refuse to entertain the idea of living somewhere else and letting the fire win. “People say it’s wrong to rebuild, but I’m 74 years old — I don’t give a shit,” Culleton concludes. “This is where I want to be.” It’s hard to blame him. For anyone fortunate enough not to know what it’s like firsthand, being forcibly dislocated from your home is as unimaginable as watching it burn. And the way things are trending, it seems inevitable that Paradise will burn again. Then again, where else would Culleton go? There’s hardly a town in this country that doesn’t feel like a Paradise in the making.
As signs of life return to the area (the high school graduation is a major event) and people begin to pick up the pieces, the film gradually becomes defined by its uncertain relationship with the triumph suggested by its title. Howard’s heart breaks for these people, and he doesn’t shy away from the toll the fire has taken on their lives; not even the stoic do-gooder Officer Gates survives the following year unscathed. The director is happy to celebrate the light moments that pierce through the darkness (there’s never been a more powerful scene of someone getting clerical permission to rebuild on their own land), even if he shares our concerns about what the future holds.
But Howard is too much of a humanist to shoot this stuff with the dispassionate remove it needs to feel like the impossible dilemma that it is. We are with his subjects more than watching them, leaving “Rebuilding Paradise” without a perspective of its own. At times, the documentary is so ambivalent about what it’s showing us that it almost feels like Howard is just messing with composers Lorne Balfe and Hans Zimmer — testing these two virtuosos to see if they can deliver a muscular and symphonic musical score that splits the difference between victory and defeat. They can’t.
And yet, whenever Howard puts his thumb on the scale, he’s able to channel the film’s pervasive sense of hopelessness into something powerful in its own right. Finding a proper ending for a documentary like “Rebuilding Paradise” must have been tricky, but Howard’s solution feels right: He leaves us with the school kids of Paradise as they raise money for tornado victims in Alabama. “We know what it’s like to lose our home,” one of them says, as news footage shows nature obliterating yet another pocket of the United States.
Politically, this country suffers from a lack of empathy, but collectively it suffers from a lack of imagination — a human inability to wrap our heads around an ecological crisis that’s too immense for us to picture in our minds’ eye. We tend to struggle with threats that we can’t see, even if they’re showing themselves in undeniable ways around the world. It’s up to fire survivors to help tornado survivors because so few people understand what they’ve gone through. That will change, and hopefully this documentary can help change it. But it’s cold comfort to think that we’ll all be living in Paradise before long.
National Geographic will release “Rebuilding Paradise” in select theaters on Friday, July 31. Visit National Geographic for screening information.