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“Trial by Fire” Based on a True Story




Review by John Delia

Based on an article that ran in “The New Yorker” and the letters from an inmate on Texas’s death row, the film Trial by Fire opens this weekend in wide release. Based on a true story, the film has an edge to it that makes a case against the death penalty. While it’s a narrative and a good production, the subject of the film Cameron Todd Willingham, who denied his guilt of intentionally killing his three toddlers, has been debated in a documentary of the same title that aired in 2010 on PBS’s “Frontline”.

The drama depicting the true event gets a look askew from the documentary that covers the same material, but then offers a different view from the perspective of Willingham (Jack O’Connell) himself. The film shows the abuse of the guards, beatings by fellow prisoners, and then the introduction of writer Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern), who gets asked to write a letter to Willingham. Each step plays out from fire, to courtroom, to cell.

Jack O’Connell and Emily Meade in TRIAL BY FIRE Photo credit Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Both films cover Gilbert’s friendship with Willingham, but this one gets more psychologically intimate between the two. Personalities of the characters have a different take, especially on Willingham with actual footage Doc being more critical than watching the acting by Jack O’Connell. Both films come to the same conclusion and appeal to those who watch the film to come to their own conclusion. While we don’t cover the political angle that this film brings to the forefront midway in the storyline, it’s something the audience will have to decide whether it’s appropriate.

_Jack O’Connell in Trial by Fire Photo credit Steve Dietl Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

The performances by Jack O’Connell as Cameron Todd Willingham and Laura Dern as Gilbert show good chemistry between them. They both have their characters essence and lay out nearly the same story of the actual people to which this awful circumstance happened. O’Connell takes on a hapless attitude in jail showing Willingham in a negative light at first, but then turns face when meeting Gilbert. It is plausible, but his body language shows more of a con, than camaraderie in help for change of sentence or even release.


Laura Dern, Director Ed Zwick, and Jack O’Connell on the set of TRIAL BY FIRE Photo credit Steve Dietl Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Director Howard Zwick does put a lot of Hollywood on the screen, showing a softer charming side to Willingham with his jail cell nighttime imaginings and the advent of Gilbert. The script here looks for sympathy showing Gilbert with two teenage children caught up in a midlife crisis of being divorced and her ex-husband in the hospital dying of a terminal illness. However, Gilbert looks more like she’s looking for a midlife jump start when she makes comments to her girlfriends and blushes during conversations with Willingham. But that said, Gilbert’s determination to find out if Willingham is guilty or even received a fair trial gets depicted as very realistic.

Trial by Fire does have a very deep seeded two sided story making it hard for one to choose. What makes a case for Willingham is the fire itself that turned the place into an inferno with evidence stemming from a space heater that was never submitted in evidence. It’s the only realistic part of the film that makes it a challenge for those who want to revisit the necessity of a death penalty.

The drama Trial by Fire has been rated R by the MPAA for language throughout, some violence, disturbing images, sexual material and brief nudity. A bit too much Hollywood makes the film conjecture. Check your local listings for a theater near you.

FINAL ANALYSIS: A well-acted and produced film with plot holes. (2 out of 5 stars)

Additional Film Information:
Cast:  Laura Dern, Jack O’Connell, Emily Meade, Jade Pettyjohn, Katie McClellan, Jeff Perry
Directed by: Howard Zwick
Genre: Biography, Drama
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, some violence, disturbing images, sexual material and brief nudity
Running Time: 2 hrs. 7 min.
Opening Date: May 17, 2019
Distributed by: Roadside Attractions
Released in: Standard

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