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Review: 'Rebuilding Paradise'

Back in 1991, Ron Howard directed a movie called Backdraft, a fictional drama about two Chicago firefighter brothers played by Kurt Russell and William Baldwin.

As I recall, it was a pretty entertaining movie with some great special effects.

But it pales in comparison to his latest effort, a documentary film called Rebuilding Paradise, chronicling the devastating wildfire on November 8, 2018 that became the deadliest fire in California history.

It destroyed a rustic little northwestern town know as Paradise.

Five years of drought, 40 mile per hour wind gusts and a powerline equipment failure all contributed to the creation of a perfect storm scenario, that is to say a perfect fire storm.

It spread from 200 acres to 18,000 acres in a matter of hours. When it was over, 85 people had perished.

As always, the news media rushed in to cover the story. And, as always, when it was over, they left and moved on.

Left unanswered was the question of how the survivors would rebuild their town and try to return their lives to normal.

Fortunately, Ron Howard and his production team at Imagine Documentaries decided that the rebuilding of Paradise was worth investigating and sharing.

As they began their research, they soon discovered that the fire itself had been dramatically recorded by dozens of police and EMS bodycams and dashcams as well as the cell phones of fleeing residents.

There are audio clips of their frantic calls.

What they captured is terrifying.

People gathering up a few personal items before desperately trying to drive through a wall of thick smoke and raging fire that completely surrounds them.

The car windows are too hot to be touched. They wonder if they are going to die.

It is one of the most frightening opening sequences of any documentary ever made.

Pure cinema verité. Unfiltered.

Told through the eyes of the people running for their lives, experiencing the event in real time as it was unfolding.

It’s the kind of sequence that has Oscar Nomination stamped all over it.

As far as I’m concerned, they should hand Ron Howard his statuette right now.

But that’s just the opening of the movie.

It’s the part that we thought we knew all about from the news coverage but realized that we never grasped until we were riding in the cars of the terrified residents, as seen through their cell phone videos.

What follows is an in-depth look at the months that followed the fire.

We trace the story three months later, six months later, a year later, and see the struggle of a small town to put their lives back together.

It’s a story of digging through the ashes and rubble, clearing the debris, finding temporary space in which to live and hold high school classes and fighting a courtroom battle with Pacific Gas & Electric establishing the cause of the fire and the resulting death and destruction.

The film narrows down the narrative by focusing on just a handful of key people in order to humanize the suffering and loss and give the viewer several points of reference.

We follow the progress and plight of the school superintendent and her hard-working husband, the self-described, 74-year-old “Town Drunk Turned Mayor,” a handsome young policeman (who could be played by Ryan Reynolds if there is ever a fictionalized version of this story) and an attractive young school psychologist.

The daunting task of raising a community up from the ashes takes its toll in ways that add another dimension of drama to this already dramatic tale.

No spoilers, but several revelations hit particularly hard after we have been introduced to these folks and genuinely begin to know them and like them.

Paradise was a town appropriately named.

The family home movies that survived the inferno offer a glimpse of an idyllic little place that looked like a little piece of paradise.

It’s that slice-of-nature, fresh-air forest environment where we all dream of living or vacationing.

That former peacefulness and serenity makes the wildfire and its aftermath even more heartbreaking.

But this is a story with a relatively happy ending.

It’s a testament to what we like to think is the true American Spirit—our ability to collectively rise up and overcome seemingly insurmountable adversity.

Some lessons are learned along the way.

Near the end of the film we see some high school students with collection jars labeled “Alabama Fundraiser”.

They were raising money for victims of another natural disaster that had just happened thousands of miles away from Paradise.

They admit, on camera, that while they were vaguely aware of relief efforts like this in the past, they now had a whole new appreciation of what it meant to go through an experience like the one they had survived themselves.

It’s a touching, uplifting moment.


Rebuilding Paradise opens in select theaters, some virtually, on July 31.

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