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“Trial By Fire” Has Righteous Anger About Capital Punishment

The death penalty is among the most controversial and debated about laws in American politics, and even worldwide. There are passionate cases made on both sides, arguing for or against capital punishment and the right for the state to take a life. To be sure though, there’s hypocrisy as well, especially when you look at how conservative lawmakers view capital punishment/the death penalty in relation to their feelings on abortion/a woman’s right to choose. Moreover, the rush to judgment in some cases is as infuriating as anything else in the matter. The righteous indignation over that fuels the new film Trial by Fire, opening this week.

This film is a true life drama/biopic, centering on the controversial and ultimately tragic case of Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’Connell). When the home he lives in with his wife Stacy Willingham (Emily Meade) burns down, killing their three young daughters, Cameron is quickly implicated in setting the blaze. Law enforcement in Texas had long seen him as the scum of the Earth, so when the tragedy occurred, he’s arrested and charged with killing his three children. A quick trial results in a conviction and death sentence, which is where Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern) comes into play. Meeting Cameron while on death row, she becomes an advocate for his case to get a second look. Especially after it comes out various pieces of scientific evidence and expert testimony were suppressed during the trial, which would have bolstered Cameron’s long standing claims of innocence, Elizabeth crusades to save his life. However, the powerful forces in Texas just want to give him the needle and be done with it. Edward Zwick directs a script from Geoffrey Fletcher, with supporting players including the likes of McKinley Belcher III, Chris Coy, Elle Graham, and Jeff Perry. The cinematography is by John Guleserian, while the score comes from Henry Jackman.

What the movie truly has in its favor is a burning sense of outrage. Fletcher, Zwick, and the cast all demonstrate their passion and righteous indignation at the state taking human life. Fletcher and Zwick make the unusual choice to dedicate nearly the entire first act to depicting how Willingham ended up on death row. Other films would have gotten him there within the first five or ten minutes, but this picture opts to make you sit with where Willingham is placed. O’Connell leans into his dark sides, while Dern doesn’t even appear into about a half hour into things. The decision is not what most storytellers would opt for, though it does give the flick a different look to it.

Trial by Fire is arguably most successful as a thesis statement about the dangers of capital punishment, though if you’re unaware of Cameron Todd Willingham’s story, you’ll likely find surprise inherent here too. The flick brings in footage of former Texas Governor Rick Perry to help make its point. Obviously, the issue doesn’t strictly divide along party lines, as plenty of Democrats are for the death penalty, while occasional Republicans oppose it. Here, however, it’s set in Texas, where an abnormally high amount of inmates are executed by the state, and that’s a state run by the GOP. The movie leans into their complacency in these deaths.

This weekend, audiences looking for some solid moral outrage would do well to give a look to Trial by Fire. The movie runs about ten minutes too long and builds towards and ending that won’t quite satisfy, but the indignation and passion from the creative forces is palpable. With strong acting from Dern and O’Connell, along with Fletcher’s perceptive script and Zwick’s expert direction, the film overcomes some flaws in order to get your dander up. The premise potentially sounded Academy Award worthy, though the final product isn’t quite up to that level. Still, remove the Oscar possibilities from the equation and you have a solid true life drama here.

Be sure to check out Trial by Fire, opening in theaters this Friday!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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