Trial by Fire Review: The Old-School Issue Movie Rises From the Ashes

Trial By Fire Jack O'Connell (L) and Laura Dern (R) in Trial by Fire (Roadside Attractions)

Ed Zwick’s death-row drama is a familiar, but effective throwback to old-fashioned issue dramas.

It’s hard to think of a filmmaker more synonymous with workmanlike historical dramas than Ed Zwick. Glory, Legends of the Fall, Courage Under Fire, The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond, and even Pawn Sacrifice in 2014 – all handsomely-presented examples of accessible prestige cinema that rarely rise to greatness, but admirably dabble in well-meaning discussions of pertinent social issues. His latest, Trial by Fire, is quintessential Ed Zwick in Courage Under Fire mode: a sensibly progressive political polemic that goes down easy thanks to solid, effective filmmaking and some fantastic performances at its center.

Based on the New Yorker article of the same name by David Grann, Trial by Fire recounts the trial, conviction, and subsequent death row tenure of Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’Connell), a Texas man sent to prison in 1991 for allegedly setting a fire in his home that killed his three small children. Right away, Todd doesn’t set a good impression: he’s got a criminal record and a quick temper, the kind of dead-eyed redneck stereotype that wouldn’t be out of place on the errant episode of Cops. Despite his protestations that he didn’t kill his kids, the evidence piles up: arson experts find evidence of the use of an accelerant, and the family fridge conveniently blocks the back door so no one can get out. A court convicts him on the strength of dubious character witnesses and his own contempt of court, and he’s sentenced to death.

Years into his sentence, hope comes in the form of playwright Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern), with whom he strikes up a friendly correspondence. While he’s resigned to his fate, she gets wrapped up in the investigation into Todd’s conviction, spearheading efforts to overturn his sentence and prove him innocent – only to be stymied by the very forces that put him on Death Row in the first place.

To the film’s credit, justifiable, Howard Beale-caliber anger at a social injustice can take even the bluntest film pretty far, and Trial by Fire‘s core of rage at the injustices of the capital punishment system is one of its greatest virtues. It’s unapologetic about its view that Willingham was done dirty by a system that sought convictions over truth, unwilling to change its course even in the face of mounting evidence of his innocence. And even then, it takes time to highlight how people of color have it even worse in the American criminal justice system, as Todd’s friendly Death Row cellmate (McKinley Belcher III) helpfully explains to both him and the audience.

It goes about this story in the traditional way (zeroing in on Willingham’s story as a means to indict the practice of capital punishment at large) but Geoffrey Fletcher‘s script is consistently on target and unashamed of its politics. There are no mealy-mouthed equivocations, no bending to the idea that really guilty people deserve to die: “the system is broken,” a lawyer bluntly admits at one point.

O’Connell has been doing thanklessly strong work in movies like this for a while now, and he finds remarkable complexity in the kind of character it’s easy to sneer at and dismiss. On the surface, Todd’s just as aggravating to the audience as he is to the townspeople who are far too willing to believe he killed his kids: he’s impulsive, quick to anger, and prone to cheating on his wife (an emotional Emily Meade). But the film smartly asks us to put aside those preconceptions and see the humanity behind the macho bluster, especially as prison breaks him down in unexpected ways. Even as the story propels him towards sainthood (he even strikes up an unlikely friendship with his torturous guard (Chris Coy)!), O’Connell’s prickly difficulty keeps Todd compellingly grounded.

As for Dern, she’s predictably incredible as with everything she does, even though the script doesn’t ask for a lot of obvious heavy lifting from her. But her strength is much more unconventional, the yin to O’Connell’s yang. Watching Dern’s Gilbert is like seeing a masterclass in how to employ ‘bless your heart’ Southern niceties for the forces of good: her investigations always begin and end with a big Texas grin, needling complicit cellmates and humoring quirky forensics experts. She’s like Columbo meets Carol Brady.

On the surface, the role is pretty thankless, but Gilbert’s aspirational nature requires that lack of complication. Her home life is relatively uncomplicated and stable – her kids (including Jade Pettyjohn‘s patient daughter) and her terminally ill husband all get along famously. She gently pushes back against the other Texas moms in her book club who are chillingly bloodthirsty when it comes to Willingham’s conviction, highlighting just how rare her perspective on capital punishment is in the Death Capital of the Nation. But that, if anything, highlights the radical empathy Gilbert embodies. If only more with such cushy domestic lives as she could reach out and help others in this way.

Google the story, and you’ll recognize that there’s no magic solution for Willingham’s predicament – Gilbert doesn’t come down on a white horse and save him, and the justice system doesn’t magically find its conscience in the nick of time. There’s a brutality to the film’s final act that makes its relative straightforwardness a virtue rather than a crutch: there are no twists and turns because this was always meant to happen. This outcome is how the criminal justice system is designed to work, and it’s worth looking at head-on, with no narrative tricks or flashy subversions. Sometimes the world is just cruel, and you have to film that in an accessible, no-frills way.

While the credits roll on Trial by Fire, we’re shown the infamous 2011 Republican debate in which a California audience greets Rick Perry’s 234 executions with thunderous applause. It’s a stomach-turning sound, especially after the two hours you’ve just experienced, and perhaps the perfect counterpoint to any concern that Trial by Fire is too polemic for its own good. If anything, it might be worth it to sit everyone in that audience down and show them this film.

Trial by Fire Trailer:

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