To read David Grann’s 2009 New Yorker story “Trial by Fire” — about an arson case that sentenced a Texas father named Cameron Todd Willingham for the murder of his children — is to wonder how anybody gets a fair trial when the death penalty is in play. A blistering piece of magazine journalism that exposed us to the likely travesty of an innocent man having been executed in Texas in 2004, it’s the kind of story that in an earlier movie-of-the-week television era would have had a nation glued to its set, probably over two nights, for an adaptation engineered to outrage and make state executions, arson investigations, and the Texas justice system into water cooler topics the next day.
Sometimes it seems Ed Zwick, a director drawn to important topics but often hamstrung by the filmmaking part of movies, would have been better served by those golden days for social issue TV movies, when lack of artistry could be forgiven if the points made were forceful and well-acted enough. Zwick’s film version of “Trial by Fire,” starring Jack O’Connell as Willingham and Laura Dern as Elizabeth Gilbert, who fought for his life, is a case in point: It’s an old-fashioned injustice barn burner with narrative and emotional beats so sturdy you can practically see the rivets. But on the big screen, it’s just not convulsive enough to stir us and instead feels trapped in a limbo of not quite awards-prestigious, but not exactly indie-fired.
What happened to Willingham, a poor, uneducated hellraiser, is truly an odyssey. In 1991, he was asleep in his ramshackle Corsicana, Texas, home when fire engulfed much of the house. Distraught, he made it outside, but his three young daughters died. A pair of arson investigators pieced a homicide story together from the crime scene, and with Willingham’s violent reputation — including incidents of spousal abuse toward wife Stacy (a fine Emily Meade), even though she swore to her husband’s fatherly devotion — secured his death sentence in 1992.
Willingham always professed his innocence, and in educating himself behind bars, found a pen pal in Houston playwright Elizabeth Gilbert (Dern), a single mother with two children. Their connection spurred her to examine his case, and the shocking injustice she discovered — a bad defense, shady prosecution tactics and faulty science — convinced her and some like-minded advocates that a new trial was warranted.
Oscar-winning “Precious” screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher’s script — adapted from both Grann’s article and Willingham’s real letters to Gilbert — is dutiful to the story’s facts in a way that draws out what’s naturally compelling, namely the prejudgment that doomed Willingham, and the friendship he nurtured that’s the reason we know his case today. The investigatory elements tend toward the race-against-time schematic, and certain lines are flinch-worthy, but the drama is certainly pre-loaded to anger us. The fiercely expressive Dern and the more colorfully explosive but still effective O’Connell — working his accent with extra drawl sauce — make the most of their scenes together, yet also the moments apart in which each clearly feels the other’s humanity spurring them toward a hopeful outcome. O’Connell, in particular, does a fine job never letting us forget that even inside a newly philosophical, reformed bad boy is still someone haunted, scared and mad.
It’s just too bad Zwick — our generation’s Stanley Kramer, righteously well-meaning to a fault — isn’t confident enough to trust his actors solely. At times, he knows the value of leaving well enough alone, but elsewhere, he’ll add music when it’s not welcome, edit choppily, and experiment with dream imagery and montage gimmicks to eye-rolling effect. The story and advocacy is still strong enough that the closing scenes, even if they’re not “Dead Man Walking,” carry a why-is-this-happening punch, but it’s hard not to feel that even at a little over two hours, there’s a rushed, assembly-line quality to how “Trial by Fire” wants to work our emotions.
‘Trial by Fire’
Rated: R, for language throughout, some violence, disturbing images, sexual material and brief nudity
When: Opens Friday
Where: Angelika Carmel Mountain, ArcLight La Jolla, Landmark Hillcrest
Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes