Trial by Fire

May 20, 2019

A true crime story that turns on the truest crime being his conviction.

Trial by Fire

Grade: B

Director: Edward Zwick (Legends of the Fall)

Screenplay: Geoffrey Fletcher (Precious), from David Grann article.

Cast: Laura Dern (Downsizing), Jack O’Connell (Unbroken)

Rating: R

Runtime: 2 hr 7 min

By: John DeSando

Director Edward Zwick and writer Geoffrey Fletcher movingly craft a biopic about convicted killer Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’Connell) in the late nineties executed for killing his three children in a fire. While there are multiple instances of the filmmakers morphing incidents to make strong their case against capital punishment in Texas, the impressive facts in the case swayed the jury and the parole board and the public.

Yet Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern), a Houston playwright, befriends him and finds strong evidence that he may have had a weak defense, local justice withheld proof of innocence, and forensic evidence showing no arson, was all garnered too late. Although more than half of the film is spent on unnecessary setup, when the biopic gets to Liz unearthing new evidence, it becomes on fire, so to speak.

That last half has moments of tension while at the same time following the Hollywood formula of manipulating music, questionable coincidences, and charming convict. Although clearly the filmmakers make the case that his case was bungled, they also make sure to depict Todd as a redneck loudmouth unlikeable by any stretch, until, that is, he has time to educate himself and be contrite.

Dern and O’Connell are convincing in their roles as unlikely friends, with a hint of romance, the film’s singular weakness being not connecting them earlier and getting to the evidence gathering sooner.

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at