As America's West Coast falls subject to another wildfire, a document arrives of an earlier conflagration. Rebuilding Paradise, a collaboration between National Geographic's reliable documentary unit (L.A. 92, Science Fair) and director Ron Howard's Imagine Entertainment, draws on the facility with images of crisis Howard displayed in his steelier 90s films (Apollo 13, Ransom). It's just that here the crisis is horrifyingly real. The film's stunning opening movement, superbly stitched together by editor M. Watanabe Milmore from phone, video and dashcam footage, plunge us into the thick of the fires that swallowed up the small Californian town of Paradise in November 2018. The sky turns orange, then more apocalyptic still; the soundtrack is given over to gasps, yelps, and teary 911 calls from local residents desperate to find a way through the smoke. Told that the town is now 100% surrounded by flames, a female driver is seen asking a fire marshal "Are we going to die?" Barely less chilling are those shots of the aftermath, which recall the devastation visited on Chernobyl or Fukushima, showing us homes, high schools and hospitals alike reduced to mere ash; the soundtrack now devotes itself to tallying a rising body count. Odd punctums draw the eye amid this blackened landscape. Half-melted recycling bins left at the kerbside offer a reminder this was just another ordinary day in an ordinary town when the inferno blazed in. A deer chased out of the surrounding woodland takes us residence on the front lawn of one property, far from the only creature left homeless here.
What follows is two films for the price of one, which would seem pretty good value if they didn't seem ever so slightly at odds with one another. On one hand, it's a National Geographic account of the devastation, so we're offered a useful science and civics lesson: how this disaster specifically related to climate change, and what this one disaster portends for those living in similar ecological hotspots. (It's... not good.) The other film sounds right up the Howard main street: a portrait of a community pulling itself back together. Yet even this film-within-a-film isn't quite as folksy or fuzzy as you expect it to be, because there are clear obstacles to the rebuilding part of that title, and to getting back to any idea of normality. The residents of Paradise have a lot to juggle: not just their grief, and the practical aspect of finding shelter after the firestorm, but the issue of culpability, trying to find someone who might bear the burden of starting the fire in the first place. This latter almost feels like a film-within-the-film-within-the-film, and here Rebuilding Paradise gets close to capturing something of that peculiarly 2020 sensation that the world - like an old fairground ride pushed to its very limit - has accelerated beyond anybody's control, that there's now simply too much going on at once. (All that's left is firefighting.) A villain of sorts presents in energy giant P&GE, whose power lines are accused of providing the fateful spark; to make the case, Howard brings on a Hollywood heroine in the actual Erin Brockovich (now Erin Brockovich-Ellis), called in by local lawyer Joe Earley to encourage his friends and neighbours to participate in a class action suit against the company.
Yet Brockovich disappears just as soon as she's appeared, and at some point Howard looks to have decided that the best he can do for this community is provide a series of well-intentioned social calls. The remainder of the film hopscotches between the remains of these households, which yields a multiplicity of perspectives: we check in with former town mayor Woody Culleton as he's thwarted in his efforts to rebuild his house; with rocksolid professionals in the town's policing and education sectors, busy marshalling citizens and resources; with a college-educated school psychologist, told she'll have to move away if she wants to conceive, such is the benzine the fire seared into the town's water supply; and with those at the very bottom of Paradise's socioeconomic ladder, caught retreating into trailers and tents in a Wal-Mart car park. None of this will dispel Howard's reputation as a people person, but individual stories and strands (that lawsuit in particular) are lost in the haste to bring a year's worth of footage down to a TV-ready 90 minutes. My more cynical side wondered whether Howard was processing this story as a prelude to some post-pandemic based-on-true-events crowdpleaser, perhaps with Jeff Bridges as Culleton, Cherry Jones as Paradise's indefatigable headmistress, and an altogether more decisively happy ending than true events have so far permitted. (That film could retain the self-parodic Eddie Vedder song Rebuilding Paradise lards over its closing credits, which might as well be titled "Now Nominate This".) I hope not, because there's a far starker film in here, one that takes its lead from those first ten minutes and the National Geographic forecasters - a film about American fragility and insecurity, and how our infrastructure, whether by improper maintenance or simply being sold off, has now started to fail us.
Rebuilding Paradise opens in selected cinemas from Friday.