Rebuilding Paradise (2020)

A scene from Ron Howard's documentary 'Rebuilding Paradise' (Photo by Noah Berger/National Geographic).

In the new National Geographic documentary, Ron Howard documents a town rising like a phoenix from the ashes of the most destructive wildfire in California history. On November 8, 2018, the foothill town of Paradise was ravaged by the Camp Fire. 85 people lost their lives and 95% of the structures burned to the ground. This documentary was made possible by the tenacity of the residents who wanted to tell their stories. Incredible footage taken by those fleeing the wildfire is combined with interviews and candid emotional displays of optimism.

Director Ron Howard is responsible for bringing great stories to the screen. Whether they’re about heroes (“Apollo 13”), champions (“Rush”), politics (“Frost/Nixon”), or love (“A Beautiful Mind’) the actor-turned-filmmaker continues to enlighten audiences with his ability to showcase the human spirit. Recently Howard turned his focus to documentaries chronicling the lives of Luciano Pavarotti (“Pavarotti”), The Beatles (“Eight Days a Week—The Touring Years”), and Jay-Z (“Made in America”).

“Rebuilding Paradise” opens with eight minutes of heart-pounding footage taken by residents of Paradise, a small town in Butte County, California (population 26,218), as they flee the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history. Darkness and flames engulf the frightened evacuees as they navigate burning roadways while the heat makes it impossible to even touch the windows of their vehicles. Here in Texas, the experience would be comparable to driving through the middle of a hurricane while trying to evacuate – Imagine driving through Hurricane Harvey.

Police officer Matt Gates is one of the Paradise residents whose footage is featured in the documentary’s opening as he maneuvers his cruiser through the fire to check on his home and the town’s citizens. He is featured predominantly in Howard’s film as we watch how the tragedy has affected his personal life and marriage.

The documentary also introduces us to school superintendent Michelle John who works tirelessly to make sure seniors like Zach Boston and Brandon Burke will be able to graduate traditionally on the school’s football field which means bumping heads with FEMA before getting the green light. And we also meet residents who have lost their homes and now live in a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer park including Krystle Young and young parents Kayla and Justin Cox.

Rebuilding in Paradise was also complicated by FEMA rules and regulations as experienced by Steve “Woody” Culleton, the former town drunk who became mayor. He was one of the first in the small town to finally receive a permit to begin rebuilding his home nine months after it was destroyed by the fire.

There is a personal connection between the town and Howard. His late mother-in-law lived there for many years and so Howard became familiar with the community. A few months before the Paradise fire, Howard’s sister-in-law was forced to evacuate the Carr Fire in Redding, California. When the Camp Fire made the news Howard immediately sent a camera crew to begin covering the aftermath which led to 12 months of filming and thousands of hours of footage. The result, like most of Howard’s films, is a tale of the human spirit overcoming adversity.

When setting out to make “Rebuilding Paradise” the focus was on coping with the tragedy, not the culpability. There is a scene where a representative from Pacific Gas & Electric Corp addresses a town hall by apologizing to the crowd for the blaze that began when a faulty electrical transmission line ignited the fire that quickly spread due to the dry conditions caused by drought and gusty winds. A Red Flag Warning was in place the day of the fire. PG&E pled guilty to 84 counts of involuntary manslaughter and agreed to pay a $3.5 million dollar fine. Watching the electric company rep address the crowd is grueling especially after observing these people attempt to put their lives and community back together.

In many ways “Rebuilding Paradise” brings the current Coronavirus pandemic to mind. It serves as a warning that we must learn from these residents in an effort to save our country. Like many of Ron Howard’s films, it also serves as a sign of hope.

(3 stars)

In select theaters and available to watch online via Virtual Cinema at

Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic. 

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Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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