Director Edward Zwick’s pointedly political “Trial by Fire” tells a true story of what looks to be the case every opponent of capital punishment has been warning we would get: A seemingly innocent man executed for a crime he didn’t commit.
And through every earnestly well-acted moment, telegraphed plot point and emotionally wrought line of dialogue, the movie becomes a dramatically inert message movie that will move neither the heart nor the needle in America’s debate over government sanctioned killing.
Screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher (an Oscar winner for adapting Sapphire’s novel “Push” into “Precious”) takes a David Grann article for The New Yorker and presents the story in plodding chronological order. It begins on on the morning of Dec. 23, 1991, in Corsicana, Texas, when Cameron Todd Willingham (played by Jack O’Connell) runs out of his burning house, where his three daughters, a 2-year-old and baby twins, are trapped inside. He tries to open a window, but is blown back by the flames.
Next, Zwick and Fletcher show the arson investigation, the interrogation of Willingham and his wife Stacy (Emily Meade), and Todd’s arrest on murder charges. The trial is shown as low-key farce, with dubious forensics, a questionable jailhouse snitch (Blake Lewis), a psychologist (Lindsay Ayliffe) who diagnoses Todd as a cult worshipper based on the heavy metal posters in his bedroom, and a public defender (Darren Pettie) who can’t work up the energy to raise a single objection. The guilty verdict and death sentence are pretty much a formality.
It’s nearly an hour before Zwick and Fletcher introduce the other main character to the story. She’s Liz Gilbert, a Houston playwright and divorced mother of two, played with vivacious intensity by Laura Dern. Gilbert is painted as a natural do-gooder, tending to her dying ex-husband (Wayne Pére) in the hospital or pulling over to help a stranger with engine trouble.
It’s that encounter that leads Gilbert to join the Texas Coalition Against the Death Penalty, and start corresponding with a Death Row inmate: Todd Willingham. After visiting Willingham in prison, and reading his file, Gilbert is convinced that he didn’t get a fair trial, and starts lobbying to delay his execution and get a new trial. This being Texas, where then-Gov. Rick Perry ran on a tough-on-crime platform, the odds are against Willingham.
Fletcher’s script lets the audience know well in advance which way things will go here, and Zwick allows O’Connell, Dern and Meade to go from zero-to-shouting in no time flat.
Dern always gives a good performance, though, and even in the role of movie savior she finds deep emotional spaces and unexpected empathy. She’s the one thing that makes the preaching-to-the-choir drama of “Trial by Fire” feel like like something alive and real.
‘Trial by Fire’
Opens Friday, May 17, at select theaters nationwide, including Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City) and Megaplex Jordan Commons (Sandy). Rated R for language throughout, some violence, disturbing images, sexual material and brief nudity. Running time: 127 minutes.