Trial by Fire review: A deeply political film distracted by needless melodrama

Zwick’s film never captures the righteous fury of the New Yorker article it draws its story from 

Clarisse Loughrey
Thursday 10 December 2020 14:18
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Trial By Fire trailer

Dir: Edward Zwick. Featuring: Jack O'Connell, Laura Dern, Emily Meade. 15, 127 mins

One of America’s many horrors, its penal system, comes under interrogation in Edward Zwick’s Trial by Fire. The film has truth on its side. Based on David Grann’s article of the same name, published in The New Yorker in 2009, it documents the tragic case of Cameron Todd Willingham – sentenced to death for the murder of his three young daughters, after a fire consumed their Texas home on 23 December 1991. The prosecution had pointed to his history of spousal abuse, to his love of heavy metal (which they named Satanic in nature), and to a neighbour’s statement that claimed he was more concerned with saving his car than his children. His defence barely put up a fight. In 2004, he was executed by lethal injection, aged 36.

In the years after his conviction, Willingham became acquainted with Elizabeth Gilbert, a Houston playwright who’d volunteered to act as pen pal for an inmate on death row. In his first short, nervously scrawled letter to Gilbert, Willingham asked if she might come and visit him. She agreed. Their growing connection led her to delve into the details of his case – a shameful mess of unsupported evidence, contradictions, and rushed assumptions. Grann’s writing draws the reader to one terrible, disquieting conclusion: Texas had executed an innocent man. The problem with Zwick’s film is that it never captures that same righteous fury. It’s a deeply political film distracted by the needless posturing of melodrama.

Grann’s article, and its subsequent adaptation, draw from the letters exchanged between Willingham (here played by Jack O’Connell) and Gilbert (Laura Dern). The two performers take up the material and turn it into a hesitant but soulful dance – they are the ones who lend Trial by Fire its moments of genuine vulnerability. Dern, as a woman described by her dying ex-husband as “Saint Liz”, grounds that kindness in a sense of openness and emotional curiosity. O’Connell, known for his work in British prison drama Starred Up and Angelina Jolie’s Second World War film Unbroken, has had an entire career defined by displays of poisoned and battered masculinity. That’s no different here, even if it comes packaged with a thick, Southern drawl. He never lets Willingham’s rage sink too far beneath the surface, challenging his audience to find empathy in spite of the recklessness and the rage.

Dern and O’Connell treat the gulf between their characters with nuance and care, but Zwick, known for unabashed epics like Glory and The Last Samurai, fixates on it – as does screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher, who won an Oscar for 2009’s Precious. Dern is the successful, working single mother who whirls across her pristine kitchen like a spinning top, doling out sandwiches and affection to her two kids. Willingham’s home, in comparison, is so overstuffed with dysfunction – the adults scream at each other, the children scream at nothing – that it turns the whole exercise into a reductive and rather insulting picture of class divide.

Jack O’Connell never lets Willingham’s rage sink too far beneath the surface, challenging his audience to find empathy in spite of the recklessness and the rage

Trial by Fire also forces Willingham through a kind of poetic transformation. He reads, he writes, he befriends the guards. Over time, due to the pure force of his gentility, he loses the nickname “Baby Killer”. At night, the ghost of his eldest daughter visits him in his cell. These things all weaken the film’s central argument, by making Willingham and his suffering seem in any way exceptional compared to what happens daily behind prison bars. Trial by Fire ends with a direct condemnation of former Texas Governor Rick Perry, who presided over a record-setting rate of executions, including Willingham’s – what’s missing is a condemnation of the whole system.

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