Trial By Fire, in limited release this week, is another story of justice set aside. Jack O’Connell stars as Cameron Todd Willingham in the true story of how he was convicted of murder following a house fire that claimed the life of his three young daughters. He maintains the fire was accidental, but authorities believe they have their man, driven by a need to hold someone responsible.
To his aid comes Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern), a woman who believes Willingham hasn’t received the best legal aid and is being railroaded by the system. Over the course of more than a decade, she uncovers new evidence and finds potential wrongdoing among various investigators, all while Willingham languishes on death row, ultimately executed for a crime he insists he didn’t commit.
Elizabeth and Cameron both appear on the poster, the latter twice. Once at the top his face is alongside the burning house that has sent him to prison while at the bottom he’s looking up at the sky, perhaps hopeful his innocence will finally come to light. She’s in the middle, looking determined. Copy at the bottom tells the audience to “Stand for what’s right. Fight for what’s true.’ while at the top we’re sold on the fact it comes from the director of such well-regarded dramas as Glory and Legends of the Fall.
Cameron is sitting on death row as the trailer opens, thereafter being found guilty of murder. When Elizabeth comes to visit him, she wants to hear his side of the events that sent him to prison. He continues to protest his innocence, something she comes around to believing as she finds there were serious problems with the prosecution, defense and overall investigation. Smacking down a bit of casual sexism, she keeps on digging and fighting but keeps butting up against a broken system that doesn’t want to admit fault or change because it helps some people feel safe.
Online and Social
Not much on the movie’s official website, just the trailers, a synopsis and a prompt to save a release date reminder to your calendar.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
Nothing I’ve come across.
Media and Publicity
Its debut at the Telluride Film Festival generated moderately positive reviews. Much later – February, 2019 – it was picked up by Roadside Attractions.
Zwick was interviewed about the politics of the death penalty and the message he wanted to send with this story. He and others in the cast and crew made a few other media appearances and sat down for the occasional chat, but not much.
It’s surprising that Ed Zwick, who has a string of successful and popular movies to his credit, has a new movie coming out that isn’t being widely discussed. There may have been some targeted outreach to get interest groups focused on the death penalty to see and talk about the film, but in general circles there’s little conversation about a movie that seems to cover such an important topic.
Dern, of course, looks like a major attraction for the movie in addition to the subject matter. She’s consistently excellent and surely elevates the material behind the Movie Of The Week status is might have been, just as Zwick’s involvement likely does. Just as with the handful of movies about police shootings of black men, stories of how justice is miscarried – either accidentally or willfully – should get more attention as they shed light on serious societal issues.