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Directed by Ron Howard
Rebuilding Paradise Review
Ron Howard’s Rebuilding Paradise tells the harrowing true story of a community ravaged by tragedy that ultimately came together in an effort to rebuild their town.
As most probably know, in 2018, a fire engulfed the quaint town of Paradise, California and claimed 85 lives, destroyed homes, families; and left a town angry, confused and desolate. To compound matters, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), after an initial investigation, was found guilty of causing the fire (as a result of faulty equipment built in 1921) and was ordered to pay over $13 billion in settlements — an ongoing issue that has yet to fully resolve itself. There’s an awkward moment in the documentary where one of PG&E’s representatives must present the company’s five-year strategy to re-power Paradise in front of the angry townsfolk. The room is quiet at first as the man makes apologies on behalf of the company, but then the pent-up emotions burst followed by cries for compensation.
We hear about these kinds of situations all the time: big name company wants to shave costs, ends up causing a disaster that destroys lives, fights against accusations in court, and years later finally produces a check just large enough to placate the victims.
But Howard, ever the consummate filmmaker, spends a great deal of time focusing on the human element of the story. Rebuilding Paradise points its camera at the people of this once proud town, quirks and all, and allows us, the audience, to appreciate their current plight on an emotional level. We learn about Woody Culleton, the town drunk-turned-Mayor, Michelle John, the superintendent of the local schools, and local cop Matt Gates, who helps coordinate a tree-lighting ceremony centered around the somehow-still-standing ice-skating rink.
In an early scene, we witness a young man standing in foliage talking about the home that used to reside next to a handful of cherry blossoms. “My property was pure serenity,” he says before proclaiming he will rebuild his home just like it was before the fire. Later, a woman discusses how the tragedy actually brought her closer to a relative she had dismissed some years earlier. And, in perhaps the most profound scene in the film, two young girls collect aid to help the citizens of Alabama who stand in need after being ravaged by a tornado. “Before I’d see the news and say, ‘Oh, that’s sad’ … now I think I need to help them,” one of the girls says.
Tragedy has a strange way of uniting individuals who would otherwise pay one another little attention. Unfortunately, grief for others is short lived, Howard seems to say. Events such as the Paradise fire don’t resolve themselves and instead create calamitous ripple effects that aren’t easily fixed.
After the fire, for example, the town’s water supply became saturated with the cancer-causing chemical benzene, which made it impossible to drink. In fact, a woman is advised not to get pregnant due to her exposure with the contaminated water. Where should she go? Most of the people in the film built their lives in Paradise and now must decide between abandoning the locale and starting anew elsewhere or waiting for all the lawsuits and settlements to finalize so they can rebuild.
Naturally, there are debates involving whether or not the community should be rebuilt considering the danger inherit in the location, to which Culleton retorts, “Is it wrong to build a house in a hurricane zone on Miami beach? This is where I want to be.”
Rebuilding Paradise lays on the emotional beats a little thick — as is Howard’s tendency as a filmmaker — and meanders in its middle act where it bounces from town hall meetings to history lessons detailing the reasons the fire spread so quickly. And yet, there are also truly astonishing moments that demonstrate just how remarkable people can be when united for a single cause. And the early sequences involving the fire itself, which transforms a quiet morning into something out of a horror film, are downright terrifying to behold.
The film concludes on a decidedly bittersweet note with footage of other catastrophes happening across the world. The fight never ends. And we should never stop fighting.
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