8.5 / 10
Directed by Ron Howard
Paradise residents of California come together to heal their community after a devastating fire.
Ron Howard’s Reconstructing Paradise tells the true and distressing story of a community devastated by tragedy that has finally come together in an effort to rebuild its city.
As you probably know, in 2018, a fire broke out in the picturesque city of Paradise, California, and killed 85 people, destroyed homes, families; and left a city angry, confused and desolate. To make matters worse, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), after an initial investigation, was found guilty of causing the fire (as a result of defective equipment built in 1921) and was paid over $ 13 billion in settlements – an ongoing issue that has not yet been fully resolved. There is an embarrassing moment in the documentary when one of the PG&E representatives must present the company’s five-year strategy to refuel Paradise in front of the angry city dwellers. The room is quiet at first, when the man apologizes on behalf of the company, but then repressed emotions explode followed by claims for damages.
We hear about this kind of situation all the time: the big company wants to cut costs, ends up causing a life-destroying disaster, fights court charges and, years later, finally produces a check big enough to placate the victims.
But Howard, always the consummate filmmaker, spends a lot of time focusing on the human element of the story. Rebuilding Paradise points your camera at the people of this once proud city, peculiarities and everything in between, and allows us, the public, to appreciate your current situation on an emotional level. We learned about Woody Culleton, Michelle John, the superintendent of local schools, and local police officer Matt Gates, who helps coordinate a tree lighting ceremony centered on the ice rink that is still standing.
In an opening scene, we witnessed a young man standing in the foliage talking about the house that used to reside next to a handful of cherry blossoms. “My property was pure serenity,” he says before proclaiming that he will rebuild his home as before the fire. Later, a woman discusses how the tragedy really brought her closer to a relative she had fired a few years earlier. And, perhaps in the film’s deepest scene, two girls seek help to help Alabama’s citizens in need after being devastated by a tornado. “Before I see the news and say ‘oh, this is sad’ … now I think I need to help them,” says one of the girls.
Tragedy has a strange way of bringing together individuals who would otherwise pay little attention to one another. Unfortunately, mourning for others is short-lived, Howard seems to say. Events like the Paradise fire do not resolve and instead create calamitous wave effects that are not easily fixed.
After the fire, for example, the city’s water supply was saturated with cancer-causing chemical benzene, which made drinking impossible. In fact, a woman is advised not to become pregnant due to her exposure to contaminated water. Where should she go? Most of the people in the film built their lives in Paradise and now must decide between leaving the place and starting again somewhere else or waiting for all processes and agreements to be finalized so that they can be rebuilt.
Naturally, there are debates involving whether or not the community should be rebuilt, given the inherited danger there, to which Culleton replies: “Is it wrong to build a house in a hurricane zone in Miami Beach? This is where I want to be.
Rebuilding Paradise rests a bit on the emotional beats – as well as Howard’s tendency as a filmmaker – and spreads along the way, from city hall meetings to history classes, detailing the reasons why the fire spread so quickly . And yet, there are also truly amazing moments that demonstrate how remarkable people can be when united for a single cause. And the first sequences involving the fire itself, which turns a quiet morning into something extracted from a horror movie, are absolutely scary to see.
The film ends on a decidedly bittersweet note with images of other catastrophes happening around the world. The fight never ends. And we must never stop fighting.