NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T he town in Northern California is named Paradise, but infernal scenes mark the dizzying start of a Ron Howard documentary about California’s worst-ever wildfires, in 2018. The sky is black as midnight at 7 a.m. Patients are evacuated from a hospital. A car sits flaming in a driveway. A refrigerator stands in an ashy mess where the rest of the house around it used to be. Horses trot nervously up a roadway. Fleeing families report the windshield of their car is too hot to touch, or ask, “Am I going to die?” Eighty-five people did, and thousands of buildings were destroyed. The name attached to the blaze was a dry understatement: the “Camp Fire.”
All of this happens before the opening credits of Rebuilding Paradise, Howard’s film for National Geographic, a theatrical release that is largely about the aftermath of that fire. Howard’s instinct is to tell stories of embattled Americans willing themselves past adversity, in such films as Apollo 13, Cinderella Man, A Beautiful Mind, and the upcoming Hillbilly Elegy, but his style isn’t quite a match for the subject he chose this time. After that nerve-frying beginning, Howard tries to shape Rebuilding Paradise into yet another story of pluck and grit, but it’s really a story of the various ways government fails even the neediest and worthiest of citizens.
Telling the story through a cross-section of ordinary citizens (a police officer, a high-school student, a politician), Howard strings together lots of scenes of stout-hearted residents vowing to be so many phoenixes rising from ashes. That’s not really supported by actual events. There are several very interesting stories in the movie, but Howard mostly just waves at them as they pass by. Howard could have made a fascinating film about the birth of the fire, the drama of people escaping on a moment’s notice, or the red-tape rodeo of the rebuilding effort. Instead he concentrated his attention on nice people telling the camera they intend to get on with their lives.
Howard isn’t much interested in how the fire started, and he expends a couple of minutes pointing a finger at climate change before pivoting to the actual, direct cause of the fire, which was a broken hook on a transmission tower. A power line fell against the tower and sprayed sparks all over the dry forest fuel beneath it. Howard skimps on this seemingly vital detail because it doesn’t fit the climate narrative, which he brings in again at the end, with one of those natural-disaster montages meant to reinforce the accepted dogma that has repeatedly been undercut by reality. (Hurricanes, for instance, have not become more frequent since 1900. As for the drought that struck the Paradise area before the fire in 2018, the 2017 National Climate Assessment found that droughts have become less frequent over much of the U.S.)
In the background of the film is an entirely more interesting story: about government failure. Pacific Gas & Electric is the way it is (expensive, neglectful of maintenance, unresponsive to customer concerns) because it’s a state-sanctioned monopoly in Northern California. Later in the film we learn that logging regulations caused lumber concerns to overfill the forest to such a degree that it created the perfect fuel profile for the Camp Fire to spread. The least interesting aspect of the story is all the stuff that Howard spends most of his time on — citizens proudly staging a high-school graduation or finding schools for displaced kids.
Howard has always been more interested in the emotional than the analytical, but in this case the nuts and bolts of redevelopment are far more interesting than the heartwarming vignettes. Rebuilding Paradise is an accidental libertarian parable about the many ways government fails the people, right down to the moment when a beloved ex-mayor gets handed one of the first three rebuilding permits. Since we like this man, a folksy fellow who tells us that when he first got to Paradise, he was the town drunk, we’re meant to feel warm and cozy about his rebuilding project, but the alert viewer will be asking: Wait a second, thousands of people lost their homes and by sheer coincidence this professional pol gets to go to the head of the line for permission to rebuild?
The most revealing line in the film is not any of the inspirational we-will-rise-again statements but when someone announces proudly, “We do not have to go through FEMA for our trees.” The woman saying this tears up with gratitude as she makes this remark, which means merely that the town has found out that one of its schools can remove trees without Washington involvement. This decision took months to secure, and yet everyone in the room where the news is announced erupts in grateful applause that even the smallest action can be taken without the approval of a federal agency that didn’t even exist until 1979. The reaction should instead be disbelief that, even in the most dire moments, we are all playthings of a bureaucracy.
By the end of Rebuilding Paradise, a year after the fire, hardly anything has been rebuilt. Howard doesn’t tell us this information because it doesn’t harmonize with his feel-good vibe, but last November NPR ran the following headline: “The Camp Fire Destroyed 11,000 Homes. A Year Later Only 11 Have Been Rebuilt.” Howard considers the boring town-council meetings to be mere backdrop to his tale of human perseverance, but the former, not the latter, are the real story: The bureaucrats nullify the tenacity. Howard is so busy being cheerful he doesn’t notice that his movie illustrates how the indefatigable human spirit stands utterly helpless before the terrible power of municipal permit-granting authorities.