Review by Sean Boelman
Ron Howard is of the group of directors from the era of spectacle that tend to deliver entertaining but safe studio fare, but in recent years, he has found himself doing some exciting things with documentaries. His newest film, Rebuilding Paradise, is equal parts cinematic and emotional, one of the most riveting documentaries of the year so far.
The movie takes a look at the community of Paradise, California as they deal with the effects of the destructive wildfires that devastated the West in 2018. A big part of what makes this stand out from other documentaries about wildfires is that it comes from a human angle rather than a heroic or ecological one.
The things that the Paradise community went through are absolutely horrible, but the film offers an important reminder that it is not the place that defines a community — it is the people. Even though the loss of property may be heartbreaking and life-altering, the value of human life is priceless.
Those moments in the movie which explore the more tragic of the consequences of the fires are quite affecting. In interviews, some of the survivors talk about their friends and family members who weren’t as lucky as them, clearly still dealing with the loss of part of their lives on top of the grief of the death of a loved one.
On the other end of the spectrum are the more thrilling sequences, in which people relate their experiences of trying to escape the fire before it was too late. Howard cuts in footage from the fires (presumably captured with cell phones by those fleeing the area) to make these scenes feel all the more urgent.
As a whole, Howard’s execution is excellent, the film meticulously shot and edited as to have the biggest impact possible. It’s a sleek documentary which is both a strength and a weakness. The level of polish does allow the movie to feel professional and widely accessible, but something a bit grittier could have brought more of a feeling of empathy.
That said, perhaps the film’s biggest shortcoming is that it tries to do so much with such a short runtime. The movie is only an hour and thirty five minutes in length, and Howard seemingly interviewed as many people as he possibly could. The result is a solid depiction of the community as a whole, but it is missing a personal touch.
With Rebuilding Paradise, Ron Howard took some already compelling material and turned it into a surprisingly cinematic story. Despite the fact that it may be a bit too clean-cut at times, it’s a compelling documentary by all means.
Rebuilding Paradise hits theaters and virtual cinemas on July 31. A list of participating locations can be found here.
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