Trial By Fire is a gripping drama which shows us that truth and justice can be two different things. It’s not an easy film to watch or digest after the fact. The film centers around the case of Cameron Todd Willingham and the death of his three daughters which landed him on death row. While the state of Texas claimed to have irrefutable proof pointing towards Willingham, there seemed to be some cloud of uncertainty surrounding the facts of his case. How does a man who seemingly has such a deep love for his children suddenly decide to end their lives in such a horrific manner (which we see in flashbacks)? Could this be a case of someone putting on a show or a truth being created fit a perception?
Willingham is played by Jack O’Connell, who gives a stellar performance. He was able to capture the man’s initial naivety about the severity of these charges and gradually show a maturity which would have naturally occurred over the years he spent in prison. Laura Dern plays Elizabeth Gilbert, a writer who through correspondences is befriended by Willingham and later becomes his most prominent advocate. Geoffrey Fletcher’s narrative nails the nuances of the case and sets up for the audience the struggle Willingham faces and allows the viewer to develop some empathy towards him.
I did enjoy the structure of the film as well. The first 30 minutes of Trial By Fire shows everyone the circumstances which lead us to Willingham ending up on death row (including the trial). The last 90 minutes or so introduces Gilbert and roller coaster ride they went through attempting to prove his innocence up until he was sent to the death chamber.
Overall, Trial By Fire is hard to stomach at times but sometimes so his truth. Director Edward Zwick’s film paints a clear picture that our justice system is far from perfect, and reforms are certainly needed ASAP.