Ron Howard, over the last decade, has directed a handful of documentaries (all of them about popular musicians), and maybe it’s no surprise that he has turned out to be an ace craftsman of the nonfiction form. But “Rebuilding Paradise,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, is a different kind of Ron Howard documentary, and not just because it’s about the aftermath of a devastating catastrophe. In this movie, Howard more or less abandons the classical mode of nonfiction storytelling for a style that’s more loose and random and vérité; it’s as if he was trying to make his version of a Fred Wiseman film. There are, of course, advantages to this approach (when it’s working, you can catch indelible moments of reality in a bottle). Yet there are disadvantages as well. “Rebuilding Paradise” is a movie that shows us a great deal without necessarily exploring what it shows.
On Nov. 8, 2018, the most lethal and destructive wildfire in the history of California reduced the town of Paradise, a community of 26,000 in the Sierra Nevada foothills, to ashes. In what became known (for some reason) as the Camp Fire, 85 people lost their lives, 18,804 structures were destroyed, and 150,000 acres were decimated. In the first part of the film, Howard edits together dash-cam footage of the blaze taken by residents as they were attempting to escape, and this inside-the-inferno view, masterfully assembled by the director who 30 years ago made “Backdraft” (a thinly scripted drama driven by its awesome flame-licking spectacle), sears itself into your memory. The smoke is so thick and black that it turns day to night; the raw terror of people in their cars, inching along on clogged roads as the fire surrounds them, has the feel of an existential apocalypse.
We used to refer to fires like this one as “natural disasters,” but the taking-off point for “Rebuilding Paradise” is the perception that they have become, in our time, unnatural disasters. Climate change helped to turn the landscape where Paradise was built into a dry-woods tinderbox. So the fulcrum of the movie is its environmental message: the notion that this kind of community-gutting catastrophe is now happening, all over the world, to a far greater degree than it ever has before.
Yet to the extent that the residents of Paradise can blame the disaster on a force that might have been avoided, a more specific culprit is soon revealed: the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), which had been negligent in repairing a faulty power line that gave off sparks that ignited the woodland fire. The company ultimately made a settlement offer for $13.6 billion — but I didn’t learn that crucial fact from the film. I learned it by reading about it. Because the movie, though it deals with the inherent drama of the community’s interactions with PG&E officials (at one point, the fabled activist Erin Brockovich shows up to assist them), is very hazy about spelling out the post-blaze logistics of what happened: who in the community was insured, and for how much; who wasn’t insured; how the payoffs from PG&E were set to work; how the Federal Emergency Management Agency figured into all this (there is much complaining about FEMA’s inadequacy, but that’s hazy as well).
I’m not suggesting that “Rebuilding Paradise” should have been some cold-eyed documentary rooted in facts and figures. Yet if “Frontline,” say, had produced an episode about this calamity, I suspect all that information would have been cleanly presented without in any way diminishing the human reality. In “Rebuilding Paradise,” the vagueness of the detail reinforces what becomes the sentimental engine of the film’s storytelling: the feeling that Paradise must be rebuilt, whatever it takes — and that this will be the redemptive act that provides closure to the tragedy.
A community devastated by loss, committed to rebuilding itself: What could be less than admirable, or soul-stirring, about that? Well, there are hints of greater complexity around the movie’s edges, as when we meet Matt Gates, a local cop who’s like a handsome idealistic law enforcer out of central casting, then meet his very lovely family — and then, in the second half, learn that he and his wife are getting a divorce, with the implication that it’s due to the toll the tragedy took. But what happened? “Rebuilding Paradise” papers over the tensions between those who wanted to stay in Paradise and those who wanted to leave, because it’s committed to the movie-ish conceit that this community needed to be rebuilt like a castle in the air.
A defining aspect of Paradise is what a gorgeous setting the town is nestled in: an idyllic stretch of mountainous woods where the California light breaks just so. It’s a rustic suburb from heaven. But there’s another aspect of the Paradise residents’ devotion to their town that remains completely unexplored and therefore a bit uncomfortable, and that’s the fact that it’s an incredibly homogeneous community, a veritable bastion of middle-class whiteness. The film never once addresses that, in the same way that it leaves so many other relevant issues unexplored. But “Rebuilding Paradise” is dunked in a sentimental glow about what “paradise” is, a reverence that seems, by the end, as insular as it is inspiring.