Review: A Gripping True-Life Crime Drama in Trial By Fire

In a time when some of the most compellingly filmed dramas are found on television or some streaming service or another, it felt like a bit of an adjustment watching a gripping true-life story about the death penalty play out on the big screen, courtesy of veteran, Chicago-born director Edward Zwick (Glory, Courage Under Fire, The Last Samurai, Defiance). Trial by Fire tells the story of death row inmate Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’Donnell), who was convicted of murdering his three young children by setting fire to his Texas home in 1992. The conviction came after a trial that was clearly wrought with issues, beginning with Willingham being saddled with a lawyer who clearly thought he was guilty and barely mounted a defense.

Trial By Fire Image courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Willingham had a long history with smaller crimes and violence against his wife Stacy (Emily Meade) well before the fire, so no one considered a miscarriage of justice in his case particularly tragic, making any type of appeal unlikely to succeed. And since Texas hands out death sentences like some people hand out mints, the likelihood of him getting any kind of reprieve was zero. As Willingham is at his low point, we meet Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern), a mother of two teenagers from Houston who has been dealt a terrible hand herself, with her husband dying of cancer and a disposition that almost forces her to want to help others. She gets involved in a program to be pen-pals with death row prisoners, and she and Willingham become friendly; she even visits him in prison a few times.

We’ve certainly seen films in which people on the outside fight hard to keep someone on death row from getting executed, but there’s something particularly enraging about Trial by Fire, because its true intent is to poke holes (many holes) in Texas's brand of justice. Willingham was on death row for 12 years, and the struggles he and Gilbert go through to get their well-reasoned and argued petitions in front of the right people seem unnecessarily hard, as if the state doesn’t care if you’re guilty once you’ve been convicted. There are few things more infuriating than people who won’t admit they have made a mistake, and in the case of Willingham, many mistakes were made.

Trial by Fire is beautifully acted, especially by Dern, who plays a woman who is looking for purpose while also trying to raise her kids right, even though they don’t always believe in what she’s doing. A special notice should also be made about Chicago’s own Jeff Perry, who pops in as a man named Hurst, an arson expert who tears down the state’s examination of Willingham’s house fire. Zwick’s direction is fairly straightforward, but it includes moving glimpses inside Willingham’s mind as he copes with the loss of his children while being isolated in a cell by talking to his oldest daughter who isn’t really there and doesn’t/can’t speak back to him. It’s truly heartbreaking.

For a film that I’ve seen no advertising for and had never heard of before a couple of weeks ago, Trial by Fire is easily the best film to open this weekend (it's in general release), and I hope you take the time to find it and check it out.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.