Trial By Fire is the latest film from director Edward Zwick, who is probably best remembered for his American Civil War epic Glory, although his other credits over the years include Blood Diamond, The Last Samurai and Courage Under Fire. It was released in 2019 over in the States to little or no fanfare, and was eventually dumped onto Sky/NowTV in the UK this April. Now it’s gotten a DVD release, thanks to Dazzler Media, which has been moving into home video distribution of feature films after years of mostly TV releases (Dazzler also released the underrated—although in its final moments infuriating—Seberg earlier this year on DVD.)
Jack O’Connell, who blew up on screens for a hot minute with his lead performance in Starred Up, stars as Cameron Todd Willingham. Willingham’s plight is a tragic one: in 1992 he was convicted of the murder of his three young children by arson and sent to Death Row. He claimed innocence, but itwasn’t until years later that his appeal was given an ounce of the attention it deserved. Laura Dern plays Elizabeth Gilbert,a playwright who encountered the story and quickly became an advocate on Willingham’s behalf, working to try to get his appeal to overturn the conviction heard.
First and foremost, the film is way too long at 127 minutes, because the film doesn’t really kick in until Dern’s Gilbert shows up, which is at least a third of the way in. The first 40 minutes tell about the arrest, conviction and early years in prison, and could’ve been easily edited down into 20 minutes—and the film would be better for it. The actual details of the conviction and trial are pretty interesting, but unless you are going down that route of courtroom drama, it should be trimmed down. The way the film stands, it just plods along, so you could made the case the film is too short as well.
The two main performances are typically strong: Laura Dern, as always, is captivating; O’Connell, who has a magnetic screen presence, does his best. He is an actor who can’t quite get out of movie jail—his “good FBI agent” in Seberg was that film’s most offensive aspect.
Stylistically, Trial by Fire is not any more cinematic than a high-end HBO movie, so it’s no wonder that it’s mostly been dumped onto streaming services/TV worldwide. It had a frankly pathetic release in the US in 109 theatres at its height, where it made practically nothing. It does, however, depict the stark reality that if you are poor the chances of a fair trial in “the land of the free, home of the brave” are next to zilch. It also has a slight subplot about Willingham’s fondness for heavy metal, which may have contributed in his conviction. This isn’t explored enough, given that when the events occurred it was still the height of the “satanic panic.”
The story of Willingham’s wife, Stacy, is also interesting. Shehas contradicted her original story multiple times, and has claimed at times that he confessed in their final meeting. This also isn’t explored. She has maintained that he is guilty, despite various experts and scientists saying it wasn’t arson. As depicted in the film, she was out buying Christmas presents as a local Salvation Army thrift shop when the fire occurred. She is played by Emily Meade, who does her best with a rather thankless role. Chris Coy, who like Meade is also an alumni of HBO’s The Deuce, has a supporting role as the main guard on death row—Zwick must’ve been a big fan of that show.
Despite its generic Oscar-bait vibe, Trial by Fire makes its point with enough righteous anger, no doubt helped by the two leads. It does have baffling creative flourishes, including a ghostly visit from Willingham’s dead children to him in his jail. However, by the end you want to inject then-Texas governor Rick Perry with his own cocktail of drugs to send him the morgue, so it’s effective.