‘Trial by Fire’ presents an emotional case against capital punishment

Laura Dern and Jack O'Connell in Trial by Fire (2018)

Trial by Fire (2019)

Directed by Edward Zwick

I saw the 2010 prison movie “Stone” before I saw many movies that are objectively much, much better. At the time, I thought Edward Norton’s performance as a cornrowed arsonist was really phenomenal, but in the years since I’ve understood that it was, instead, just really put-on. Sometimes, the more an actor gives a performance, the better it’s perceived. I think this partly explains why Al Pacino still has a career. Anyhow, I got Norton-esque vibes from Jack O’Connell, the British actor, as he played the deathrowed accused arsonist Cameron Todd Willingham in “Trial by Fire.” Is his performance good, or is it just a lot? In fact, I feel similarly conflicted about this movie as a whole.

In 1991, Cameron Todd Willingham (O’Connell) was jailed in Texas for murder after a housefire killed his three daughters shortly before Christmas. He was the only one in the house that morning who survived. After quickly being sentenced to die, and spending seven years on death row, Willingham began a correspondence with Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern), a 47-year-old French teacher and playwright. Convinced that Willingham was actually innocent, as he had always claimed, Gilbert began fighting for a stay of execution, a retrial, anything to save him.

Early on in the movie, there’s something admirable about the way Oscar-winning screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher (“Precious”) adapts the 2009 New Yorker story “Trial by Fire” into a compelling courtroom drama/prison movie. It may rush over key scenes, but Fletcher sets up the story well and culls the most important pieces from his source. But then comes the second half, where Laura Dern’s character is clumsily introduced. When she asks her daughter, “Am I making any sense?” and her daughter replies with “Honestly? Not really,” we feel her daughter’s confusion. Maybe it’s because I have never thought about corresponding with a death row inmate, and such a decision would take me months of consideration—but for Gilbert, at least in the microcosm of filmmaking, it takes her only minutes. She seemingly has no impetus besides “Why not?” In real life, there really wasn’t much more than that—Gilbert was in a rough spot after hearing that her ex-husband, the father of her two children, was dying of cancer. A movie defined by its series of unfortunate and improbable events stumbles on a few of the more fit-for-fiction twists. And when Dern squeezes explainers into her dialogue—like the passing comments to her children that are meant to catch the audience up on something there is no easy way to show on screen—we see right through the cheap screenwriting ploy. It’s probably not easy to cram a decade-long story into two hours, but “Trial by Fire” won’t live on as the benchmark for how to do it in the future.


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