Trial by Fire (Edward Zwick, 2018) 2½ out of 4 stars.
Trial by Fire, from director Edward Zwick (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back) is the kind of film that trolls for your sympathy through rich veins of sentiment that mask a mostly hollow shell of a story. And yet we can’t help reacting with occasional emotional reciprocity, so effective are the scenes that hit their mark. I hated the movie at times, but quite enjoyed it, at others. For every unpleasant shot of a charred infant there’s a fine moment of exceptional acting from lead Jack O’Connell (Unbroken). If not quite a trial, the movie can often try one’s patience. Still, when it works, it can make for surprisingly engaging cinema.
O’Connell plays Cameron Todd Willingham, a real-life manexecuted in Texas in 2004, despite the emergence of evidence showing that the crime of which he was accused – burning down a house with his children inside – was no crime at all, merely an accidental fire. We follow the story from initial conflagration to final lethal injection, a grim journey from misery to misery. Willingham is no easy protagonist on which to hang a narrative, ornery and drunk, at first, though he improves over time. Laura Dern (Certain Women) joins the film halfway through as local playwright Elizabeth Gilbert (not the author of Eat, Pray, Love), who takes an interest in Willingham’s case and works to have his conviction overturned. The two parts, his and hers, never quite successfully merge on screen, though the few scenes the actors have together work nicely.
By the end, we understand that as unpleasant a person as Willingham may have once been, no amount of bad behavior should condemn a man to die if he is innocent. The problem is the heavy-handedness of the message, delivered in bold, underlined strokes. I far preferred the 1995 death-row drama Dead Man Walking, which managed its tale of redemption more effectively. Still, in that film the man was guilty; here, perhaps, our outrage, even if compromised by the clumsy script, might lead us to fundamental questions about the nature of our justice system. Maybe. First, we have to get past those burned babies.