Review: TRIAL BY FIRE Is Hard To Watch But Very Interesting


Unabashedly political (and all the better for it), Edward Zwick's Trial by Fire features a great performance by Laura Dern and is sure to catch on with fans of true crime films.
Technical Merit

Trial By Fire is a new film written by Geoffrey Fletcher (Precious) and directed by Edward Zwick (Glory) based on the true story of Cameron Todd Willingham. It is about a man who is sentenced to death row after being accused of murdering his three children in a fire despite his claims of innocence. It debuted at the 2018 Telluride Film Festival.

This story is tragic in every sense of the word and is sure to leave you feeling angry at the United States’ legal system after it is over. Granted, the movie does take a very clear and unwavering stance on the events, not allowing for any ambiguity, but if you do buy into this perspective (and it is easy to do so), you will find the film to be compelling and fascinating.

The movie does an extremely good job of building the characters in a way that achieves the purpose intended by the filmmakers. Willingham is made to be thoroughly sympathetic and likable, so audiences will likely pity him for the situation in which he finds himself. The supporting character Elizabeth Gilbert, who becomes a champion for Willingham, is also very compelling if somewhat archetypal. However, some of the supporting characters could have used some more development.

There are some points in the middle of the film that drag somewhat, but they do still have meaning and purpose. The movie could have done without about ten to fifteen minutes of content and still would have been fine, but it still manages to keep your attention as is. The film doesn’t bother trying to build mystery, instead creating a sense of internal dread because you like the characters know what is going to happen, just not when.

trial by fire cell
Jack O’Connell in TRIAL BY FIRE. Photo credit: Steve Dietl. Courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

The movie’s message is ultimately a positive one, albeit one that is strongly bitter and angry at the world. Zwick’s frustration with the idea of justice radiates throughout the body of the film, and this passion is part of what makes the movie work so well. That being said, Gilbert’s character does lend the film a bit of humanity, as she is the glimmer of hope that shows we still have reason to be optimistic towards society even if we do massively screw up at times.

Laura Dern is an absolute powerhouse in this movie. It seems like she is starting to get typecast, but she does a great job with what she does, so let it keep going until she gets tired of playing the same role. Her performance is emotional, and although it isn’t particularly subtle, neither is the film, so it fits. Jack O’Connell’s performance has more mixed results. He has some great moments, but he does go over-the-top at times and his accent isn’t particularly convincing.

The only real disappointment in the movie is its execution. For a film so incendiary, you would think that the filmmakers would have been bold and taken giant risks. Instead, the movie is mostly safe and bland. Everything about the execution is entirely competent, but there isn’t anything to make the visual storytelling stand out. The only part that stands out against the rest of the film is the opening scene in the fire, and that is because it reveals that the budget wasn’t particularly large.

Overall, Trial By Fire was a mostly solid movie. Since the popularity of true crime stories is on the rise right now, this seems to be a film that has the potential for breakout success. It isn’t without issues, but it does accomplish the goals which it set out to achieve.

Trial By Fire opens in theaters on May 17 from Roadside Attractions. It is rated R and runs 127 minutes. You can find more info at


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Sean Boelman
Sean is a film student, aspiring filmmaker, and life-long cinephile. For as long as he can remember, he has always loved film, but he credits the film Pan's Labyrinth as having started his love of film as art. Sean enjoys watching many types of films, although some personal favorite genres include dramatic comedies, romantic comedies, heist films, and art horror.


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