• Nate Adams

Review: Routine 'Trial By Fire' fails to dig deeper


Courtesy of Roadside Attractions 

An earnest effort in any case, the new Edward Zwick’s fact based (and by-the-numbers) drama “Trial By Fire” is a convincing crusade against the death penalty. For brief spurts, the film makes a compelling argument and the pedigree of talent assembled between Jack O’Connell (“Unbroken”) and Laura Dern (“Big Little Lies”) is a winning combination, but the cliched routine among the plotting leaves minor room for growth.

No question our justice system is flawed and broken, “Trial By Fire” has us trying to piece together the remnants of the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’ Connell) for killing his three little children in a house fire just before Christmas in Texas, 1993.

Back then, nobody had any trouble pointing the finger directly at Willingham, a poor white trash loser with a criminal past of drunken spats and domestic violence. He’s got a wild temper and can’t hold a job - but one thing was always  certain, he loved his children.

His wife Stacy (Emily Meade) isn’t much better, lacking the kind of education that would convince the jury to see how Cameron couldn’t kill their children - but in the end he’s sentenced to death.

Twelve years past and along comes Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern) - a civil rights activist working against the system - who begins to have a pen pal relationship with Willingham begging her to come visit and hear his plea for innocence. Gilbert, who naturally airs on the side of sympathy, has a tendency for seeing monsters as human beings and decides to listen to his cause. Considering there’s been no progress on Cameron’s case in over 12 years and his appeals are all but gone, Gilbert decides to peek at the evidence and discovers that the state could murder an innocent man.

When O’Connell and Dern are on screen chewing up the lazy dialogue is where “Trial By Fire” avoids feeling like an episode of “Law and Order.” O’Connell reveals a layered performance that becomes more mature and engrossing as his character starts having an appreciation for the time he’s got left. And Dern, in her do-gooder attitude, is interesting as a mother juggling this caseload and her two children at home who just lost their father.

But before we get settled in with these characters and try to understand them, Zwick begins pushing all the predictable buttons in the Lifetime network playbook. Serious doubts start arising about the way Cameron’s original trial played out, with clear malpractice in motion and new witness testimony stating they lied under oath (shocker). This all building towards an emotional hook which actually says a thing or two about capital punishment in this country.

For that I give “Trial By Fire” credit, but the loose interpretation of its subject makes the sting less palpable, because by the time the credits start to roll it feels like we barely knew these people at all.

Grade: C