The film comes saddled with other staples that go hand-in-hand with the “Howard” trademark. Sentimentality is one, Lorne Balfe and Hans Zimmer’s thunderous score needlessly emphasizing what’s inherently tragic. A diluted thematic approach is another. Rebuilding Paradise mentions FEMA several times yet fails to either indict or support the organization. It generally avoids taking a political stance, aside from one Donald Trump appearance, wherein he hilariously refers to Paradise as “Pleasure.” A lack of bias can be crucial to a good documentary, but here, it’s as if Howard were reluctant to spark too much controversy.
For example, at least judging by the film, there’s a surprising lack of diversity in Paradise that’s never touched upon. The blinding whiteness is so apparent, it becomes distracting. Climate change is brought up briefly, particularly in the last, admittedly searing montage of not-so-natural disasters, but feels like an unresolved thread. To be fair, this lack of scrutiny could be intentionally mirroring humanity’s stance on things like racism and global warming – we’re aware of it, we just don’t like to delve too deep into it.
“…here, it’s as if Howard were reluctant to spark too much controversy.”
Neither does Rebuilding Paradise function as an indictment of PG&E, the natural gas company whose lack of foresight ended up being the chief reason for the fire. One of the film’s highlights is the all-too-brief scene wherein one of PG&E’s executives has to apologize to Paradise’s residents, and consequently face their anger and grief. We learn that Paradise’s water is toxic, which prompts an appearance from Erin Brockovich. But again, Howard favors a swelling orchestral cue over probing the human psyche.
The Camp Fire was one of the deadliest fires in a century, killing 85 people, displacing 50,000 residents, contaminating the water, and destroying 95% of local structures. Yet the human spirit prevails. The past is the past, and now is the time to start rebuilding. “We’re alive!” a resident exclaims to another through tears of sorrow. It’s that optimism that will ultimately stay with you after the credits of Rebuilding Paradise roll.
Side-note: COVID-19’s shadow hangs heavily over the documentary. Now, the fire feels like a premonition, a taste if you will, of much worse things to come.
"…comes saddled with other staples that go hand-in-hand with the 'Howard' trademark."