In Trial by Fire, there is news footage of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaking enthusiastically about the volume of convicted murders executed by his state, and as he does so, a lusty cheer goes up from the political rally crowd.
The footage is inserted into Trial By Fire by director Ed Zwick to provide some context in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’Connell), a Texas man convicted of murdering, via arson, his three young children -- deaths so awful a swift accounting is demanded, and the machinery of “justice” moves with particular purpose and speed.
In a “law and order” culture, Zwick argues, order is usually favored over fealty to the law. A conviction is demanded, and Willingham is highly convictable. He’s poor, a short-tempered brawler, abusive husband, womanizer, and a chronically unemployed man who is caregiver to the three children because he can’t or won’t work, and his wife, Stacy (Emily Meade), is the one making ends meet.
She’s away one morning when Willingham and the children are asleep and fire engulfs half the house. He’s awakened by the cries of his dying children, but the heat is so intense and the flames so pervasive that he can’t get near them.
That’s Willingham’s claim, but police have a different idea. Zwick shows how quickly they decide on Willingham’s guilt and build a case for it. Investigators claim to find evidence of a fire accelerant. A jailhouse snitch reports that Willingham confessed to the crime, and during the trial, a disinterested public defender repeatedly advises Willingham to avoid the death penalty by pleading guilty. When Willingham refuses, the lawyer loses interest. No serious defense is mounted, and Willingham finds himself on death row, awaiting lethal injection in a state that likes to keep the line moving.
Trial by Fire, based on a New Yorker article by David Grann, moves efficiently and without sentiment though Willingham’s conviction before settling on the crux of the drama here -- the relationship between Willingham, alone and isolated in prison, and a woman named Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern), who volunteers to correspond with him, hears his claims of innocence, and reinvestigates his case. She uncovers what looks increasingly like a shoddy investigation (the arson “evidence” is refuted) and slippery prosecution (the jailhouse snitch recants).
By following Gilbert’s trail, Zwick makes the point that swift justice is often bad justice. He also lingers on the odd contours of the Willingham-Gilbert relationship -- Dern plays her as a decent but wary woman who takes an interest in Willingham because she said she would, and because nobody else will.
Zwick, like Gilbert, is not credulous. The movie allows that Willingham can be innocent and still be manipulative and angry and flawed, and you see that in the O’Connell/Dern scenes. Dern’s character can be doing the right thing and also be obsessive to the detriment of her duty to her own family. O’Connell plays Willingham as wronged, but often wrong in the way he holds on to hate and grudges.
The relationship evolves with the unsatisfying messiness of real life, and so Trial by Fire concludes without the wallop of emotion you might expect. A tweak toward conventional drama might have added to the movie’s impact, but it’s scrupulous and straightforward. It’s an ethical, patient prosecution, which is what Willingham and all defendants are owed in a perfect world.
Trial by Fire. Directed by Ed Zwick. With Jack O’Connell, Laura Dern, Emily Meade, and Jeff Perry. Distributed by Roadside Attractions.
Parents guide: R (violence, language)
Running time: 2 hours, 7 mins.