Cameron Todd Willingham burned his three daughters alive, at least according to the state of Texas, which sentenced him to death in 1992. In the decades since, Willingham’s trial has been relitigated in the court of public opinion by the New Yorker, whose evisceration of testimony by arson experts gives “Trial by Fire” its title. The case has also become a cause célèbre for justice advocates sifting through convictions to find a case where the American government executed an innocent man — Willingham was put to death in 2004 — a travesty they would take all the way to the Supreme Court.
Edward Zwick’s take on the tragedy is a linear biopic, a film more comfortable with time stamps than in burning down the judicial system. “Trial by Fire” opens two days before Christmas in Corsicana, Texas, as 23-year-old Willingham (Jack O’Connell) flees his flaming house, barefoot, shirtless and screaming for someone to help rescue his three little girls — 2-year-old Amber and 1-year-old twins Kameron and Karmon — who’d been asleep inside.
Willingham was the kind of local ne’er-do-well who knew the cops by their first names. He dabbled in heavy metal music and beat his wife Stacy (Emily Meade). The townsfolk clucked that surely no one could set fire to their kids, but if anyone had, it was probably him. During the trial — the recreation of which presents the most interesting portion of this movie — investigators convince those in the courtroom that Willingham had even poured lighter fluid on the carpet in the shape of a pentagram. Even his court-appointed attorney groans, “Boy, you about as dumb as you look,” before attempting to get him to plead guilty. Willingham was guilty of being poor, stupid, aggressive and spooky. But he swore he wasn’t guilty of murder. The jury convicted him in an hour.
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O’Connell is the go-to actor for suffering. After seeing him battered in “Starred Up,” bombed in “’71,” and tortured in “Unbroken,” his face foreshadows violence, even disguised by a mullet and goatee. In prison, Willingham’s fellow inmates bash the “baby killer” until he can’t open his eyes. A guard (Chris Coy) interrupts only to get in his own licks.
Seven years later, a chastened Willingham has transformed from brute to martyr, in part because legal books have taught him to read. He might fumble the pronunciation of “analogous,” but he’s literate enough to trade letters with a divorced playwright and mother of two named Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern), who slips into the film at the halfway point with an itch to reopen Willingham’s case. Hope, warns Willingham, could shatter his zen.
Geoffrey Fletcher’s script examines two kinds of inhumanity: individual and institutional. The latter is likely to wear drab suits and claim it’s just doing its job. And it’s more likely to get Willingham killed. Here, the antagonist is too vague to fight. Instead of a specific villain, Zwick just cuts to unknown men at unknown desks tossing Willingham’s appeals aside unread. As his cellblock mate (McKinley Belcher III) puts it, “You know why they call it capital punishment? You got no capital, you get punishment.”
Every line of dialogue in “Trial by Fire” is wrapped with so much exposition that the film feels tied to the train-tracks of good taste. Characters don’t converse, they simply say all their thoughts aloud, as when Willingham sighs, “Any man that can’t save his own kids don’t deserve to live.” The story takes risks only when Willingham chit-chats with his dead daughter’s ghost (Elle Graham), and even those hallucinations are tame. Better to bring on the mustache-twiddlers.
The protagonist’s leap from heel to hero feels overcooked, as are the violins and choral sobs that increase in volume as his execution date draws near. The film simply can’t squeeze all the big emotions of Zwick’s previous epics like “Legends of the Fall” and “Glory” into a small cell. Willingham is no larger-than-life martyr. He’s a flawed man who fares better when the film flashes back to the everyday things he’ll never do again: flirt with his wife, drink a beer, walk on grass.
To Zwick’s credit, he occasionally lets Willingham’s beatific composure slip — his relationship with Sandy is particularly combustible — and O’Connell tears into those moments like a starving man with meat on his plate. When the film’s alive, it’s fully alive. There’s a terrific scene where Dern cranks up her inner Southern bimbo to try to charm a witness into perjury. Later, a meeting with a third arson expert (Jeff Perry), goes delightfully off-kilter when the man proves a point by setting his floor on fire.
“Trial by Fire” is at its best when attacking the prosecution’s bad science. Unfortunately, the film would rather try, and fail, to tug on the audience’s heartstrings than build a solid case against the classism and overconfidence that have surely sentenced other innocent men to death (including another falsely accused arsonist who shared the real Willingham’s cellblock).
As for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who presided over more executions in office than any governor in modern history, he escapes without being indicted for his attempts to end further forensic investigation of Willingham’s case. Over the closing credits, Zwick inserts footage of Perry boasting about that record-setting rate to the approval of an audience at a GOP debate.