Trial by Fire

First Hit: A very well acted and somewhat manipulative film about a premeditated rush to judgement.

There is no faulting the acting in this film. In fact, Jack O’Connell as Cameron Todd Willingham was outstanding, and thus far maybe the best performance of the year by a male. Here he plays a father wrongly accused of intentionally lighting a fire in his home that burned up his three daughters.

Having done prison outreach work with prisoners in both Folsom and San Quentin prisons, along with letter writing to prisoners in other states, I’ve learned a little about the prison system. One such prisoner I spent time with during visits to San Quentin, was in for two life terms. He gave me a perspective of his life and the life of people who are sentenced to die in prison. This film does a great job of sharing some of the intensity of being faced with how one dies in prison.

The film begins with dark black smoke billowing out of a home. Flames following Cameron as he stumbles and falls out the front door. He’s shirtless, afraid, and panicked as he tries to break a window to get back in the home.

We learn that his three daughters are inside and are lost. The firemen come, extinguish the blaze and then fire investigators show up and as we follow them through the burnt wreckage of a home, they lay out what they believe happened. This fire, they indicate, was set by using an accelerator, probably gasoline, in the children’s room.

Cameron and his wife Stacy (Emily Meade) are questioned by the police and immediately after they bury their daughters, Cameron is arrested for murder.

Part of the set-up is that Cameron is known around the small town as a bullying punk, doesn’t work, and is supported by Stacy. He’s also been previously arrested and has spent time in jail. The police know him, as do some town residents who have had run-ins with him, and he’s made no friends. However, despite his meanness towards Stacy in the early scenes, there is a hint he loves her and he appears to really care about his girls as the film shows past scenes of him attending to his daughters.

The trial is an overt travesty (part of the manipulativeness), with his defense attorney not asking questions and not seemingly having much desire to find out the truth - he just wants the trial to end. Of course, Cameron doesn’t help his case any by being both belligerent and argumentative in the courtroom and to the attorney.  

As the trial proceeds, evidence is presented that paints pictures that overwhelmingly show Cameron to be guilty. Scenes are presented that show contrasting stories, and the audience, as well as the jury, are supposed to believe to be the truth. His only supporter is Stacy who knows Cameron loved his girls.

After the guilty verdict, he’s sentenced to death as allowed by the State of Texas. His first few days in prison are difficult because being a convicted baby killer, he’s persona non-grata by either the other inmates or the guards and they show their disdain for him by taunting and beating him.

In another part of Texas Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern) is in a hospital tending to her dying ex-husband. The dialogue here is primarily focused on showing us what an open hearted, steadfast, caring woman Elizabeth is.

Getting involved in a prison outreach program by writing prisoners, she writes a letter to Cameron who is starving for outside attention. Being locked up on death row, his wife refuses to visit him, he’s got no friends, and his family can’t visit; he’d like contact with the world.

Over time he’s mellowed, gained some perspective and has become self-educated by reading law books and other books of literature. By the time Elizabeth visits him for the first time, he’s nothing like the character he was prior to his conviction. In fact one guard who beat him at the beginning has become empathetic towards him.

Elizabeth becomes convinced Cameron is not guilty and begins work on his behalf to get a stay and appeal because as she digs deeper she finds evidence of the fraudulent case brought against Cameron.

The film painstakingly builds this case and at times, just like the earlier segments, was overdone and manipulative. However, I found it interesting that the film overtly shows how then Governor Perry neglected and discarded the evidence presented to him that showed that witnesses were bribed, and the physical evidence was flawed.

The ending is somewhat of a shock. Then we get a quick look, as the credits role, of Governor Perry, during the presidential debates, pronouncing how fair and just the Texas system of law is.

This film makes several good points, and because the injustices that were projected onto Cameron are still going on today, it identifies just how bad our system is when uncaring and unjust people are left to run it.

O’Connell was fantastic. I felt him fully engaged and embody this role. Dern was very strong as her eyes really showed empathy for Cameron. Meade was oddly interesting as Cameron’s wife. I didn’t quite get or buy her character and I’m not sure if it was her, the script, or direction. Jade Pettyjohn (playing Elizabeth’s daughter Julie) was very strong and her compassion for her mother towards the end of the film was congruent with how she was being raised. Jeff Perry, as Hurst (the premiere fire investigator), was utterly fantastic. His quirky way of explaining real and the not real of fire investigation was wonderfully engaging. Geoffrey Fletcher wrote the strong screenplay. Edward Zwick directed this film and he got some very powerful strong performances from this cast.

Overall: I deeply appreciated the story, even though it was somewhat manipulative in the way it cast some of the roles and scenes.