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Film Review: “Trial by Fire”

Opens May 17 @ Angelika Film Center, Arclight La Jolla and Landmark Hillcrest.
Photo credit:
"Trial by Fire"

There’s nothing new about the common charge that the U.S. criminal justice system is stacked against the poor, which may at least partially account for the lack of buzz generated by filmmaker Edward Zwick’s “Trial by Fire” at Telluride.

But that doesn’t invalidate the film’s contention that the conviction and execution of Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O'Connell) for the murder by arson of his three children in their Texas home in 1991 was unjust.

Willingham himself was not an easy person to like. This undereducated hothead with a tattoo-covered body and more DUIs than children, who yelled at and hit his wife Stacy (Emily Meade – and she returned the favors) made it easy for the jury to accept the prosecutor’s questionable if not invented evidence. And the defense didn’t seem to make many attempts to seek exculpatory evidence.

So he is condemned and placed on Death Row with many other inmates, all awaiting their appointment with death, the passing time punctuated by the sight of other inmates being marched (or dragged) past Willingham’s cell to the fateful chamber.

Another Death Row inmate, Pochai (McKinley Belcher III), poor and black, notes “You know why they call it capital punishment? Because those who ain’t got the capital get the punishment.”

It’s difficult to watch, partly because of the inevitable outcome and partly because of the artlessness of the film, which (at least in the first half) spends a great deal of time in exposition but precious little in conversation. This could have been deliberate – after all, human interaction is not what one expects to find in a prison – but it has the effect of distancing, even disengaging the viewer, at least until the second half.

O’Connell’s Willingham and Meade’s Stacy are exceptions. They are not attractive characters, but it’s difficult not to empathize with their situation.

Seven years later, a good Samaritan named Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern) picks up a woman stranded on the road. They end up in a diner, where the woman (who seems to be working for a civil rights organization) asks Gilbert to talk to Willingham.

Gilbert is befuddled by the request (as I was by the insertion of this invented event), but eventually does visit Willingham in jail. She finds him not at all the monster he was depicted in court, but a man who taught himself to read by poring over his trial record in a last-ditch effort to help his new attorney get the conviction overturned. “I’m no longer the same dumb 24-year-old I was,” he tells her.

Between the attorney’s efforts and Gilbert’s, enough exculpatory evidence is found to clear Willingham. But when it gets to Governor Rick Perry’s desk, he chooses to ignore it and authorize the execution.

Despite its clumsy first-act emphasis on exposition and excessive length (127 minutes), the story is important and Dern deserves a nomination for almost single-handedly saving the film with her committed and engaging performance. 

Opens May 17 @ Angelika Film Center, Arclight La Jolla and Landmark Hillcrest