A true-life drama from the maker of Courage Under Fire, Glory and Defiance works admirably to impart the spirit felt in films like The Life of David Gale and Conviction (the gold standing being Dead Man Walking) though not offering much tautness other than character intrigue. It’s best enjoyed knowing as little as possible going into it.
Trial By Fire stars Jack O’Connell and Laura Dern, and like Courage, moves from disparate vantage points to the courtroom as O’Connell’s Cameron Todd Willingham (called Todd by those around him) was up for the death penalty in 1992 in Corsicana, Texas for the arson-related deaths of his three young daughters.
At the time of the incident Todd was an out-of-work 20s-ish mechanic known as a troublemaker augmented by his drinking and a tempestuous relationship with his wife (Emily Meade). There’s a dubious nature to the chance for redemption as many scenes (especially of the domestic variety — often in recollection) may substantiate the claims of the prosecution.
Edward Zwick’s reconstituting of the harrowing incident goes through Todd, investigators, and Dern’s Elizabeth Gilbert, a Houston playwright, who starts out as his pen-pal and becomes his ardent advocate (similar to Swank’s Betty Anne in Tony Goldwyn’s aforementioned 2010 film) amid defensive, contentious paroxysms. Their improbable, often clashing attachment drawn from an accumulation of their letters and a 2009 New Yorker article is rather watchable after arguably too much background into Todd’s milieu. From Elizabeth’s filter less abrasiveness is etched by O’Connell (Unbroken, Starred Up) who wouldn’t be mistaken for an empathetic performance.
The intensity of the experience surrounding the case really isn’t there to be had, in spite of where O’Connell takes the character from defeatist languor to innocent profession. For her part, Dern endows a charged crusader from compassionate confidante to indignation after learning much from progress into this type of investigation, as well as looking up witnesses and transcripts. Unproven theories and substandard legal defense were instrumental in Willingham’s considerable wretchedness. Maybe the most being his cellmate Johnny Webb (Blake Lewis) made a deal with the prosecution in exchange for a lesser sentence on a robbery conviction (after other offenses) which would have landed him a lifetime incarceration.
This Trial is hardly a misfire; still even in the hands of a polished veteran in Zwick the actual emotional temperature barely reaches more than a simmer in part because of the difficulty in trying to capture how Elizabeth was persuaded to feel that a stressful man like Todd was beyond reproach.