The true and controversial story of Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’Connell), who received the death penalty for the murder of his three daughters – two-year-old Amber and one-year-old twins Karmen and Kameron. The girls perished in a horrific fire at their home on Dec. 23, 1991, in Corsicana, Texas. Willingham was accused of using arson to kill them, and authorities were convinced from the start that this lowlife did it. The swift trial is a farce.
A do-gooder activist, Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern), gets involved eight years after he’s on death row by attempting to prove evidence was faulty and suppressed. Even though a forensic expert said it wasn’t arson, Willingham was executed by lethal injection in 2004 at age 36. The Innocence Project continues to convince the state he was not guilty.
“Trial by Fire” ignites the debate about capital punishment by using the real-life case of Cameron Todd Willingham. The case is interesting, even though the film is heavy-handed in professing his innocence.
Director Edward Zwick, responsible for “Glory,” “Blood Diamond” and “Legends of the Fall,” stacks the deck and manipulates the heartstrings, but the movie does point out errors in a broken justice system. It is best at showing the biases of the police, prosecutor and judge in this case, especially when it comes to scientific evidence and unreliable witnesses.
Sure, Willingham is his own worst enemy – he’s a typical unemployed white-trash stereotype with a mullet and tattoos who parties too much and is full of anger, accused of domestic abuse and the rumor mill is fueling a false narrative about Satan worshipping His wife Stacy (Emily Meade) was getting Christmas presents at the Salvation Army when the fire occurred. Their tempestuous relationship doesn’t last but she initially sticks up for him on the witness stand as a good father.
Jack O’Connell, so good as Louis Zamperini in “Unbroken,” is convincing as a guy who was abandoned by his mother, grows up wild but loves his kids, goes to prison for their tragic deaths and is taunted as a ‘baby killer.” Somehow, in prison, he learns enough to turn his life around, all the while proclaiming his innocence.
Some of Zwick’s tricks are mawkish. Todd, as he is called, talks to his oldest daughter, imagining her age-appropriate. His adversarial relationship with a caricature of a prison guard flips to become allies, bonding through their love of the Dallas Cowboys. The prolonged death scene is excessive in depicting inhumanity.
O’Connell and Dern work well together, although her saintly single mother, as written, is over-the-top. In a brief turn, Jeff Perry excels as Hurst, a forensic expert who becomes O’Connell’s advocate.
Its heart on its sleeve, “Trial by Fire” isn’t particularly executed well and is more akin to those TV-movies of the 1980s that David Letterman once described as “I want my kids back!” Subtle, it’s not. While that hampers its mission, there’s no denying how strong a miscarriage of justice the Willingham case appears to be.
The script is based on a 2009 investigative piece by David Grann in the New Yorker and Todd’s letters. A 2011 documentary, “Incendiary: The Willingham Case,” first explored the conviction and execution.
The strength of the material, and the acting, are the reasons to pay attention here.