Thursday, July 30, 2020

Ron Howard's ode to a town that caught fire

     On Nov. 8, 2018, a raging fire destroyed nearly all of Paradise, Ca. Dubbed the Camp Fire, the conflagration resulted in 85 deaths and the destruction of 18,804 buildings.
     It's hardly surprising that director Ron Howard begins the documentary Rebuilding Paradise with compelling footage taken by those who were fleeing the blaze, in many cases leaving everything behind. Howard and his team do a terrific job of assembling the footage in ways that provide a feeling for an experience none of us would ever want to live through.
    As Howard's movie develops, issues begin to clarify. Climate change helped fuel the fire, as did the negligence of the Pacific Gas & Electric Company.
    But rather than make an issue-oriented film, Howard has chosen to focus on the courage and determination of those Paradise residents who were determined to rebuild their much-loved community.
    Rebuilding Paradise can't be taken as a definitive look at what happened in 2018. It would have been nice, for example, to hear a bit more about the wisdom of attempts to recreate idyllic small-town life in an area that's become fire-prone.
    Moreover, Howard doesn't dwell on Pacific Gas & Electric, showing a town meeting at which a company representative offers an apology. Erin Brockovich shows up, urging people to sue.*
   Still, there's enough sadness and anger among displaced residents to convey the monumental difficulties faced by those whose lives were uprooted; the movie's at its best when conveying the emotions of those who yearn to recover some lost portion of their lives.
     Howard introduces us to a town cop whose marriage takes a hit when he transitions to endless post-fire shifts. The superintendent of Paradise's schools desperately hopes to stage high-school graduation on the school's football field. A town resident who says that he reclaimed his wayward life in Paradise and is among the first to rebuild.
     If Howard doesn't fully engage the scope of the story suggested by the Paradise debacle, he certainly puts a human face on it. Rebuilding Paradise may not dot every "i" and cross every "t," but it takes aim at the heart. Let's face it: There are many worse targets.
*(PG&E eventually offered a $13. 6 million settlement.)

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