Trial by Fire

Directed by critically acclaimed filmmaker and Oscar-winning producer Edward Zwick best known for 1989’s Glory and 1995’s Legends of the Fall, Trial by Fire is a well-crafted drama with terrific acting performances from the two main characters and a deeply compelling plot about a man on death row for a crime that he probably did not commit. Based on a true story, the film follows Cameron Todd Willingham, played by the talented British actor Jack O’Connell, as he goes through the flawed Texas justice system and eventually meets an unexpected supporter of his case for exoneration. In the beginning of the movie, we witness his trial which leads to his conviction and being sent to death row for the arson and murder of his three young daughters in Corsicana, Texas in December 1991. As a poor and uneducated individual living in rural Texas with tattoos and a love of heavy metal music, he quickly discovers that he has not received the same level of legal representation and thereby is more susceptible to a miscarriage of justice. He spends most of his twelve years on death row learning the judicial system in order for him to try and petition for a retrial or exoneration as a result of several investigative blunders and negligent lawyers. As the years pass, he develops a very close relationship with a single mother of two kids living in Houston who comes to visit him numerous times before deciding to help out on his case. Played by Golden Globe winner Laura Dern, Elizabeth Gilbert becomes a strong advocate for Willingham even as family members question her motivation for trying to free a convicted murderer. Over the course of the film, it becomes readily apparent that he is innocent or at least not deserving of the death penalty and therefore the movie becomes much more of a anti-death penalty film critical of the justice system. Overall, I found it to be a powerful movie by a filmmaker who does an excellent job of showing the emotional rollercoaster that someone like Willingham must go through as he faces certain death by the state while providing a unique perspective from the most unexpected source of Elizabeth Gilbert.

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