(2020) Documentary (National Geographic) Woody Culleton, Matt Gates, Michelle John, Erin Brockovich-Ellis, Zach Boston, Brendan Burke, Justin Cox, Mike Ramsey, Ken Pinlok, Alejandro Saise, Kayla Cox, James Gallagher, Phil John, Mike Zucolillo, Melissa Schuster, Tammy Hillis, Zeke Lunder, Calli Jane DeAnda, Aaron Johnson, Carly Ingersoll, Tenille Gates. Directed by Ron Howard
We have become inured to disaster. Each one seems to be greeted with numb compassion; thoughts and prayers, and all that. We feel for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. We feel for the victims of the tornados that swept through Alabama. We feel for the victims of the explosion in Beirut which happened less than 24 hours ago as I write this. But we also feel numb, as if it’s just one more thing in the load of regret that we carry around with us like a backpack full of bricks.
Oscar-winning director Ron Howard is surely aware of this. As we cope with a deadly virus that has cost 160,000 lives (and rising), protests (sometimes violent) over racial injustice, an increasingly divided country that can’t even agree on whether we should wear masks during a pandemic, it feels like we have lost our ability to feel compassion or horror. All we feel is nothing.
This is a documentary that aims to change that. The first ten minutes are maybe the most terrifying ten minutes you’ll experience this year. We see the footage of the 2018 Camp Fire, which on November 8, 2018, fanned by Santa Ana winds, fueled by years of drought and years of a lack of forest clearing, went from being a small fire to travelling nine miles in a matter of hours, roaring through the town of Paradise, California like a pyroclastic cloud, leveling the town of 26,000 in a matter of hours and leaving 86 dead – the deadliest wildfire in the history of the California.
But what happens then? Howard isn’t interested so much in the disaster itself but in the aftermath. He follows several residents of Paradise – police officer Matt Gates, school board member Michelle John, and former mayor Woody Culleton (and the self-admitted former town drunk) – as they cope with the trauma, the loss of life, the loss of property, the feeling of rootlessness. Everything they knew and loved was gone. Of course, they want to rebuild.
But the nagging question is, should they? The conditions that created the Camp Fire aren’t going to go away anytime soon, and with climate change growing more and more of an issue, there is a very real chance that if they rebuild the town, it could burn once again. While the sparks that started the fire came from the nearly century-old equipment of Pacific Gas and Electric, a town meeting in which Aaron Johnson, an executive for the power company, maintains that while PG&E intends to “do right” by the town, it will take a minimum of five years to convert the power lines to underground lines. With the rains that normally soak the woods of the town, located about 85 miles north of Sacramento in Butte County, not arriving until after Thanksgiving (after previously arriving before Halloween), it’s a very scary situation for those who call Paradise home.
One of the things the documentary does well is show how interdependent a town is. Michelle John tells us that if the kids all move away, there’s no point in reopening the schools; if the schools don’t open, there’s no reason for people to stay. It’s a Catch-22 that also exists for businesses and services as well.
The unassailable thing that we can’t get away from is that home is home; there’s something about a place that gets under our skin, that gives us a sense of belonging. This is particularly true of small towns, although big cities can have this as well. There are places where we don’t just want to live there; we want to die there too.
=Dealing with the bureaucracy that is FEMA is almost as traumatic as the fire itself. Getting the funds and permits to get homes rebuilt requires the residents to jump through hoops. Many of them can’t afford to move somewhere else even if they wanted to – and some really don’t want to, whether it’s due to an attachment to the life they once lived there, or because the place calls to them.
The three main subjects – John, Gates and Culleton – are all interesting. Gates is the kind of model police officer that give police forces a good name; he is dedicated to his community and heroic in evacuating his town, even as he notices his own home is burning. John works tirelessly for the kids that she serves, trying not only to get kids placed in area schools, but also to clear the area around the football field at the high school so that the senior class can hold their graduation ceremony. Culleton is the straight-shooter, who at 74 decides that relocation is out of the question; “Where the hell am I going to go?” he says crossly, when discussing the matter.
The movie is inspirational, and there are some moments – such as one where a tough man is reduced to tears when the rebuilding of his home begins. Family members discuss the last moments of loved ones who died in the fire, and a loving husband tells his wife to make sure she takes care of herself in her zeal to get things back to normal for her town.
The spirit of these townspeople is indominable; you can’t help but admire they’re strength. Many of the town’s residents will never return. Bringing the town back to what it was before is the work not of months and not even years but decades. Some critics sniped that the film doesn’t truly examine whether Paradise should be rebuilt but to be honest, who is anyone to tell a person where they should live? People live in tornado alley, on the coast where hurricanes land, in earthquake zones, near volcanos, and near rivers that flood. There are few places on the planet that are exempt from natural disasters. It’s what we do after them that define us as people.
REASONS TO SEE: Packs an emotional wallop. Uplifting in the truest sense of the word. The footage of the fire and the aftermath are breathtaking and sobering. Puts the people at the center of the story. Illustrates how interdependent a community is.
REASONS TO AVOID: In the stressful environment we live in currently, some might find it too much.
FAMILY VALUES: The footage of people escaping the fire may be too intense for the impressionable; there is also some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The year following the fire, the Paradise High School Bobcats football team went undefeated; virtually the entire town that remains would attend their home games.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/5/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews, Metacritic: 70/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cajun Navy
FINAL RATING: 10/10