The US Justice system has been getting a lot of attention of late, not least in relation to the imbalance between how punishment is metered out to people of colour compared to white Americans. In the most extreme regions, you are tried for being black, poor, or in any way different. Director Edward Zwick’s Trial By Fire gives us one of these stories, in a stark criticism of the corruption existing in the system and how local politics and prejudices are more relevant to conviction than evidence.
The film opens with the catalyst for the events that follow. A fire starts in a small single-story wooden house, and a man, Cameron “Todd” Willingham (Jack O’Connell) runs out covered in soot, bare-chested, and screaming for his babies. As the flames engulf the house, his actions are observed and how hard he tries to get back into the house to find his three daughters is examined and criticised.
The court decides that the fire was arson, that Todd is a murderer and he finds himself on death row. It’s a familiar story, you’d be hard pushed to find a metal fan who hasn’t heard and raged at the conviction of the West Memphis Three (their story told both in documentary form, Paradise Lost  and West of Memphis  and a film, Devil’s Knot  – strongly recommended) and a similar witch hunt occurs here. As his band posters and tattoos are seen by those in the bible belt as a sign that he is a Satan worshipper. A depraved man who has sacrificed his own children.
7 years later, Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern), a single mother, French teacher, and playwright, volunteers as a pen pal for an inmate on death row through the organisation TCADP (Texas coalition to abolish the death penalty). An unlikely friendship strikes up between the pair, and she takes it upon herself to examine Todd’s case and attempt to exonerate him. As Elizabeth uncovers profound issues with the prosecution’s science and the police department’s actions in gaining a conviction, Todd has had little to do but read, and attempt to block out the rattling chains of the other inmates. They walk past his cell towards their own fates like ghosts, as he waits for his turn under the needle.
O’Connell manoeuvres through the multiple parts of what makes Todd a complicated person. Imperfect but ultimately a loving father. Dern is as always brilliant, and her earnest belief in trying to do the right thing sits in sharp contrast to her performance in Marriage Story for which she won her Oscar.
The pacing suffers a little at times, as it takes the best part of an hour for Dern’s Elizabeth to arrive and begin really examining what happened. The hopeless first half gives us little to sympathise with, and perhaps would have benefitted from more of the non-linear and revelatory storytelling we are given in the second half. First made in 2018 too, you have to wonder how telling the story of a wrongfully tried white man will play in 2020. His story is not undeserving of course, and the tragedy of it is that any wrongful conviction is a horrifying thing, but for a story about the harshness of the criminal justice system it is overwhelmingly a white affair. Aside from Ponchai (McKinley Belcher III), the man in the next cell, who provides quotable dialogue before it’s his turn to walk the path that awaits Todd.
This is a story that needs to be told, and ultimately it is well told. One only hopes that it is another factor in persuading a flawed system to begin the slow process of change.
Dir: Edward Zwick
Scr: Geoffrey Fletcher
Cast: Jack O’Connell, Laura Dern, Emily Meade, Chris Coy
Prd: Kipp Nelson, Alex Soros, Allyn Stewart, Edward Zwick
DoP: John Guleserian
Music: Henry Jackman
Runtime: 127 mins