Quietly premiering at last year’s Telluride film festival alongside bigger, splashier titles, the worthy fact-based drama Trial by Fire quickly became one of the season’s most inevitable casualties, a crushing lack of buzz immediately putting an end to any potential awards run. A decade or so ago, this might not have been the case. Based on the true story of a man claiming wrongful imprisonment, directed by Oscar-winning film-maker and producer Edward Zwick, scripted by Geoffrey Fletcher, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Precious and starring two-time Oscar nominee Laura Dern, it’s the sort of sturdy prestige-y project that would have been a contender in a different, simpler time.
The film’s old-fashioned nature is a plus and a minus, delivering us the satisfying beats we’ve come to expect from such a story, yet also giving it a dusty, dated feel, playing like a mid-90s TV movie stumbled upon late at night. The story at its centre has been previously explored in a 2011 documentary but the film takes its inspiration from David Grann’s 2009 New Yorker article of the same name. In 1991, 23-year-old Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’Connell) wakes to the sound of crying. His house is on fire and his three daughters are trapped in the other room. He’s unable to save them but, to police, he was never really trying to, their immediate assumption implicating him in their deaths. A trial ensues; Willingham’s shambolic public defender is neither able to save him from a conviction nor the death penalty.
Seven years later, an unlikely set of circumstances brings playwright Elizabeth Gilbert (Dern) into Willingham’s life. Still on death row, he’s resigned himself to his fate but when Gilbert starts to dig around, he starts to allow the idea that justice might be served.
There’s a steady current of righteous anger coursing through Trial by Fire, a film that begins as a self-contained story of one man’s injustice before transforming into a damning indictment of an entire legal system. The steep rise in popularity and prolificacy of the true crime documentary has given us an increased awareness of the nuts and bolts of the courtroom, and however thin this added knowledge might be, it helps to make the film’s initial stretch that much more infuriating. Willingham was betrayed by a system that had already judged him as a worthless miscreant before the investigation even started, and Fletcher’s script doesn’t hold back on the various levels of incompetence and apathy that kept him locked up for so many years.
Willingham is by no means a saint, and the film doesn’t paint him as such, choosing instead to show him as a difficult man with a short fuse and a predilection for both violence and infidelity. But it also asks us to avoid our own judgments despite this, and there’s a rare humanity afforded to Willingham and a fellow inmate, played by Ozark’s McKinley Belcher III in an impressive cameo. O’Connell, no stranger to playing spiky, brutish characters, eases into the role, equally adept at portraying the rough and the smooth, and he helps add grit to what can often be staid film-making. As the Susan Sarandon to his Sean Penn, Dern only arrives about halfway through, but carries with her the requisite outrage to sell her character’s unusual immersion into a disconnected narrative. While the film does make familiar pitstops, the pair are spared any overly forced moments of conflict or Oscarbait monologuing, and the script makes Gilbert’s attempts to free him feel grounded and specific.
It’s in Trial by Fire’s final stretch when it finally manages to distinguish itself from so many similar films of its ilk. Much of this is down to the unavoidably enraging facts of what really happened. At the time, Trump’s future secretary of energy Rick Perry was governor of Texas, and his callous lack of interest in re-examining Willingham’s case, despite undeniable new information, is placed at the forefront, especially in a chilling coda. Zwick is a director whose most famed projects are long behind him, from Glory to Legends of the Fall to Blood Diamond, and his direction often feels similarly old-school. But there’s a prescience to his motivation here, an urgent messaging embedded in the film that also makes it feel deeply necessary.
It’s easy to see why Trial by Fire was buried in an awards season that brought us The Favourite, Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman and Roma, films that felt fresh swallowing up a film that feels inarguably commonplace. But it’s a story that deserves another airing and by presenting the facts in such a straightforward fashion, it’s hard not to feel incensed.