Film Review – Trial by Fire (2018)


Title – Trial by Fire (2018)

Director – Edward Zwick (Legends of the Fall)

Cast – Jack O’Connell, Laura Dern, Emily Meade, Chris Coy

Plot – The true story of Texan death row inmate Cameron Todd Willingham (O’Connell) who was convicted of murdering his three young daughters in a suspicious house fire. With the help of legal aid Elizabeth (Dern), Willingham sets about proving his self-confessed innocence before he is put to death.

“Love is always there if you just open yourself to it”

Review by Eddie on 10/06/2021

Coming and going with very little fanfare all the way back in 2018, the based on the true story Trial by Fire is the latest film in the increasingly forgettable later career movements by one time Hollywood heavyweight Edward Zwick, as this death row drama can now be found on streaming giant Netflix in hopes it can find an audience it initially failed to interest.

A director that at one point in time gave us sweeping Hollywood epics such as Glory, Legends of the Fall and The Last Samurai, as well as being a key backer of controversial Oscar winner Shakespeare in Love, Fire is a much smaller scale film than we typically see from Zwick as his adaptation of esteemed writer David Grann’s New Yorker article keeps things character driven and mostly solitary as Jack O’Connell’s unfortunate death row inmate Cameron Willingham fights to try and clear his name that has been tarnished forever with the supposed arson murder of his three young girls.

A talented performer that has a habit of utilizing his talents in mid-tier affairs, O’Connell is as solid as you’d hope for as the simplistic but seemingly good-hearted Willingham and he carries the film through its more tiresome beats in a full formed performance but we never get any real insight into what made Willingham the man he was and while his story is sympathetic, his not the most charming or likable of characters making our time with him interesting without being overly gripping.

The rest of the films cast don’t get a whole lot too do with the second billed Laura Dern coming into the scene around the half way mark with her do-gooder Elizabeth giving Cameron a glimmer of hope as he awaits he execution date and tries to finally get the support he needs to clear his name from a crime he is adamant he never partook in, but her role is thinly drawn, while up and coming actress Emily Meade gets short shift as Cameron’s partner Stacy making the surrounding players of Cameron’s story one’s we don’t really attach ourselves too, an element of the film that holds it back from gripping us in any meaningful fashion.

Zwick’s direction is also uncharacteristically bland, Fire feels more like a TV movie than you would’ve hoped, right down to some bargain basement effects works and a few sets used throughout the entire two hour plus runtime and with that blandness comes a sense that we’ve seen this type of story told before and told with far more flair and enthusiasm, making this true life tale one that is interesting to a point but far from the moving/memorable experience it might have been.

Final Say – 

Some solid work from its leading man and an intriguing central narrative help Trial by Fire to a reach a middle of the road marker but some bland direction and lack creativity hold this by the numbers affair back from becoming anything of note.

2 1/2 chess boards out of 5 

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