Trial by Fire, the 2018 film by Ed Zwick, is based on the New Yorker Article of the same name by David Grann. This lengthy piece is in equal parts an investigation of where and how an investigation can go wrong, and a detailed recounting of the Cameron Todd Willingham’s incarceration and the efforts to plead his innocence. Zwick’s film covers much of the same ground, fictionalising and dramatising events into a easily digestible story.
In the small rural town of Corsicana, Texas, a few days before Christmas of 1991, a fire breaks out in a children’s room. It claims the lives of three toddlers. Sadly, a common enough occurrence. In the weeks following, a rushed police investigation lays the blame at the feet of their father, Todd (Jack O’Connell), who denies the charges of arson and murder, but is still convicted and sentenced to die. Years later, as his final days loom ahead, a middle-class playwright, Elizabeth (Laura Dern) befriends him and finds the case and his trial are full of secrets.
Jack O’Connell is fantastic in the role of Todd, which will be no surprise to anyone who saw his captivating but taciturn performance in the sadly underseen ’71. Here however, he is a spinning dervish of anger, beer and cussing, with a thick Texas growl that never smacks as anything but wholly authentic. He’s a man who isn’t initially sympathetic, as it is uncovered that he beat his wife, was an alcoholic layabout, and has a massive anger and violence problem. And yet, as the injustices are piled upon him again and again by the system, and by cops, lawyers, judges and politicians who all think they “know best,” it’s impossible not to feel for him. He’s also offset brilliantly against fellow inmate Ponchai (McKinley Belcher III) and grumpy screw Daniels (Chris Coy) who grudgingly grow to like him.
Contrastingly, Todd’s white-trash girlfriend and mother of the dead children, Stacy (Emily Meade), becomes increasingly less sympathetic as the story continues, as her unwillingness to help in any way becomes apparent. The weak point comes with Dern’s Elizabeth who is painted as something of a naïve and flappy artist, whose home scenes feel awkwardly inserted and at times horribly written with really clunky dialogue.
It’s interesting that in a strange way Trial by Fire feels like rather a quaint film. Compared to other real-life dramatisations of events, such as 2019’s Dark Waters, this is a strangely staid and deliberately chronological affair. In fact, considering the prevalence and popularity of Netflix miniseries on topics like these, this method of depicting the story feels occasionally a little awkward, and very oddly paced. That does not however detract from the very real message it has about how the hands of justice can be tied by complicity and coercion from those who stand to lose from the truth coming out.
In all, it’s a fair film, with some good performances, let down by workmanlike pacing and unimaginative structure. Still, it stands far better as a plain indictment of the entire US legal system, and how the wheels of justice wilfully crush the innocent to suit the needs of politicians and those in power. This too it seems, is sadly a common enough occurrence.
Available on DVD and Digital from Mon 7 December 2020