Trial by Fire
2019, R, 127 min. Directed by Edward Zwick. Starring Laura Dern, Jack O'Connell, Emily Meade, Jade Pettyjohn, Elle Graham, Chris Coy.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., May 17, 2019
It’s a tale full of sound and fury, signifying something that’s nothing less than appalling. In 1992, 24-year-old Cameron Todd Willingham (a surprisingly effective Skins' O’Connell, in yet another masochistic role) was convicted for the crime of murdering his three toddler daughters by arson in Corsicana, Texas, a heinous deed he vehemently insisted he did not – and could not – commit. Almost 12 years later, Willingham was strapped to a gurney in Huntsville and given a lethal injection, after numerous appeals and requests for a new trial failed. Since then, valid questions about the veracity of the forensic evidence and witness testimony used to condemn Willingham have persistently lingered, leading many to conclude that this hot-tempered and abusive deplorable was wrongfully convicted and executed simply because he didn’t fit the profile of an innocent man. It’s an all-too-familiar story here in death-penalty-happy Texas, where judges and juries routinely render eye-for-an-eye verdicts and the pentobarbital flows like water through the veins of the condemned.
The anti-capital punishment sermon Trial by Fire unequivocally maintains Willingham’s innocence, recounting the myriad injustices inflicted upon him through a bullhorn of righteous anger. Based on the 2009 New Yorker article of the same (terrible) name and Willingham’s jailhouse letters, the screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher pounces on the outrageous facts of the case, which include a biased crime scene investigation, unethical prosecutorial conduct, witness tampering, incompetent legal representation, and the refusal of the judicial system to entertain the possibility of a mistaken conviction based on new evidence. The movie reserves its biggest jab in the eye for former Governor Rick Perry, who declined to grant Willingham’s pleas for clemency and often defended his state’s frequently broken system of justice with a straight face. It’s enough to piss you off real good, as they say in East Texas.
So why then does the movie end up perversely trivializing Willingham’s tragic story with a Hollywood artistic license so soppy it should be revoked? While the introduction of pen pal cum advocate Elizabeth Gilbert (Dern) halfway through the film nicely humanizes Willingham, the first sign of panic occurs when a brutal and heartless guard (Coy) is converted overnight into a friend and confidant who male-bonds with his prisoner by chitchatting about the Cowboys. Director Zwick’s loss of nerve is full-blown by the time the cuffed and bound Willingham is posed Christlike to utter his final words about persecution and recrimination moments before the death drug is administered. And then there’s the final appearance of Amber (Graham), the eldest deceased daughter – actually, the appearance of her hand – in a gesture so maudlin even Louis B. Mayer might cringe. Like so many well-intentioned movies based on true stories with social themes, Trial by Fire loses its way by failing to trust the power of its compelling facts to convince you on their own. To loosely quote Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, he who does not trust cannot be trusted.
For an interview with director Edward Zwick, read "Lied to Death," May 17.