Two solid performances drive Edward Zwick’s “Trial by Fire” with Jack O’Connell as Cameron Todd Willingham, a Corsicana, Texas, man who was wrongly executed in 2004 for murdering his three young children by arson, and Laura Dern as poet and schoolteacher Elizabeth Gilbert who met Willingham while he was on Death Row after they became pen pals.
The film based on David Grann’s article in The New Yorker shows how Gilbert began to uncover evidence that pointed to Willingham’s innocence. Zwick’s film doesn’t always live up to the compelling story, but O’Connell and Dern give their all.
The film opens on December 23, 1991 as 23-year old Cameron Todd Willingham (O’Connell) screams for help while his house becomes engulfed by flames trapping his three young daughters who were sleeping inside. It’s obvious that the quickly spreading fire was so hot that Willingham would have perished had he tried to reenter the home, but some eyewitnesses claimed he didn’t try hard enough to rescue his children who perished.
At the time of the fire, the girls’ mother Stacy Kuykendall (Emily Meade) was out buying Christmas presents at the Salvation Army.
Zwick points out how Willingham was tried in the court of public opinion even before the case went to trial as he was known around town as a troublemaker who abused his wife. It didn’t help that Willingham had tattoos including a pentagram or that he had been arrested in his past for shoplifting and driving while under the influence, but none of that means he could kill his kids.
Still, the film demonstrates how mounting evidence and testimonials from arson investigators and a former cellmate of Willingham’s made it look pretty damning for the young father charged with murder.
The film’s moves fast and furious through the trial portion which seems overdramatic as Willingham is vilified by not only the prosecution but also his own attorney who doesn’t bother to mount much of a defense. He’s found guilty and sentenced to be executed by the state of Texas. Zwick could have expanded the film into a riveting courtroom drama that would have concluded with a guilty verdict but this is just where the story begins as Laura Dern enters the picture as good samaritan Elizabeth Gilbert who is asked to join a volunteer group that writes letters to inmates on death row. She becomes pen pals with Willingham and eventually visits him in prison.
Truth is stranger than fiction as Gilbert begins to resemble Erin Brockovich investigating Pacific Gas and Electric by examining the evidence used to convict Willingham. What transpires in the film as crazy as it seems points to coverups that seem to go all the way up to Gov. Rick Perry who is seen during the credits sequence boasting about his record on executions (more than any governor in modern history).
“Trial by Fire” may lack compelling scenes but to Zwick’s credit, the director behind “Courage Under Fire” and “Glory” is more interested in presenting the facts than how the facts are presented. O’Connell and Dern excel in their roles which makes up for any lackluster moments. If you get a chance, read David Grann’s New Yorker article published in August 2009.
The facts about this tragic case are riveting. It’s also alarming that more than 130 death row inmates have been released because of wrongful convictions.
Opens May 17 in Houston at Edwards Greenway Grand Palace and AMC Willowbrook 24