Trial By Fire Review: A Combustible Performance By Jack O’Connell

By Marc Miller
Published: November 9, 2019 (Last updated: January 3, 2024)
Trial By Fire Review: A Combustible Performance By Jack O'Connell


Unbroken‘s Jack O’Connell carries Trial By Fire and gives a combustible turn as an unlikeable man who loved his children dearly, but who can’t get out of his own way

Director Ed Zwick has always had a knack for drawing the viewer in with a killer opening scene or sequence. If you look down his filmography, the examples that come to mind are when Djimon Hounsou was kidnapped and separated from his family in a civil war-ravaged Sierra Leone in Blood Diamond, or the skull-crushing opening that resulted in Matthew Broderick waking up to a sun-soaked Morgan Freeman in Glory. The man knows how to set the tone of a film and keep it there. Take the opening scene in Trial By Fire, shot from a knee’s height angle from the perspective view of a child and perfectly framed; you watch a shirtless man, covered in dark ash from hot flames that are burning the cheap wallpaper of his rundown home, and screaming for help because his babies are trapped inside. He peculiarly stumbles over to his classic car, opening the driver’s side door, and backs in out of the driveway, looking like he was saving his mustang before his three fair daughters. Cameron Todd Willingham is not likable — in fact, he is despicable in most cases; he looks like he wasn’t fit to take care of his kids, and he will be put to death for it. Trial by Fire should have been titled Trial by Book Cover.

Zwick’s new film is based on the deeply disturbing true story of Cameron Todd Willingham (a stirring, warts and all performance by Jack O’Connell) who was executed by lethal injection in the state of Texas for being convicted by a jury of his peers of killing his three children. Experts touted scientific evidence showing he did it, even though they were making giant leaps that were basically assumptions. Look at a good story — you never let the facts get in the way. The prosecutors didn’t and weren’t going to start now even if a trial had the potential to convict an innocent man. Not surprisingly, onlookers and outside observers were out for blood. These people vote, you see, and politics were played a winning hand by suppressing expert testimony that would have proven his innocence; the deaths of the three beautiful little girls demanded that someone pays for the crime, the fix was in, and the people got their man.

Zwick directed the film from a script by Geoffrey Fletcher (Precious) and David Grann (The Old Man and the Gun), based on his New York Times article. The overall compelling nature of this story, along with the hotbed of political landmines of what many consider barbaric and outdated punishment techniques, would make you believe that it’s a natural choice for a cinematic adaptation. It can be argued here and for the most part, it is, especially when you consider the first act, and the scenes involving death row inmates clawing, fighting, and crying as they are dragged to their demise as Willingham looks on. The problems arise with a flatly written Laura Dern character as real-life advocator, Elizabeth Gilbert, who works to clear his name after the death of her husband. While the movie here is obviously anti-capital punishment, the filmmakers did a commendable job of showing Willingham as a man who is so antagonistic he is generally unlikable, which puts the viewer inside their own personal jury-box of one when it comes to his fate.

The script tends to take short-cuts, offering only cardboard, one-note cutouts of the villains at trial, while Dern’s role as Gilbert seems to have been beefed up for filler after she joined the project. This, though, is an actor’s film and Unbroken‘s Jack O’Connell carries the film enough to squeak out a mild recommendation. It’s a combustible performance, and a breathtakingly unlikable turn as an innocent man who loved his children dearly, but who can’t get out of his own way. O’Connell has had trouble picking his projects as of late, but he is the main reason to see this film that is an overall absorbing view of the dangers of law and order when someone has to pay for the people’s investment in the criminal justice system.

Movie Reviews, Movies