In the movie business, famous quotes are a dime a dozen, or as Yogi might have said but never did, "I never said half the things I said." So a line attributed to Samuel (If it's not broke, fix it) Goldwyn sums up Hollywood's view of polemical movies - "If you want to send a message, call Western Union." And the quote itself shows you how long it's been a movie mantra.
Of course, Hollywood always made movies with messages, it's just that the messages were usually the ones that corporate America wanted you to get. The first big box office hit was D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, a dazzling tour de force that created much of the language of film, but as racist and dispicable a piece of propaganda as was ever given a mass audience. Gone With The Wind was not much better even though Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American Oscar winner.
The problem was not with movies that had messages because most good movies did have a 'message' or strong point of view. The problem was with the message. Simply put, messages that promoted mainstream America's prejudices or were 'patriotic' were OK; messages that promoted change or showed sympathy for the downtrodden were not OK.
As a result, Hollywood rarely took on the fat cats for the simple reason that it was the fat cats who were running the movie studios that were making almost all of the movies. Of course, times have changed, but not much. While the common wisdom is that Hollywood is to the left of Karl Marx, the truth is that Hollywood rarely makes a movie with a populist political message.
Trial By Fire attempts to be an exception. It tells the story of Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O'Connell), a 'white trash' Texan and his wife, Stacy (Emily Meade). Todd is convicted of murder for torching his own house while his three young children were sleeping. Directed by Edward Zwick, the movie starts with the deadly fire and the rage that is in Todd seems to be mirrored in the fire that consumes his family.
Todd is arrested when the police conclude that the fire was arson. Todd's trial has all the earmarks of a travesty of justice - his attorney can barely stay awake during the trial and puts up no defense. While Stacy, who was not home when the fire started, is convinced of Todd's innocence, she stands alone on his side during the trail, but after Todd is convicted, she abandons him, too.
The scenes of Todd in a Texas prison are pretty much standard movie issue: brutal guards who are only nominally less violent than Todd's fellow inmates. "Baby killer" is all anyone sees when they look at Todd and his violent behavior seems to justify everyone's prejudices about him.
Then, halfway through the movie, we jump ahead several years to when Elizabeth Gilbert (,Laura Dern), an upper middle class Texas writer, gets involved in Todd's case. While I just saw the movie, I cannot explain to you how that happens - it just does. Elizabeth has her own problems. She is trying to raise two teenage children while their father/her ex-husband is dying of cancer.
Zwick and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher run into problems trying to tell both Elizabeth's story and Todd's. There is not enough time in this 127 minute movie to do both. When Elizabeth's husband dies, we have to make do with a minute or so of her and the children grieving in bed together. In a later scene, her children accuse her of caring more about Todd than her own children, but that 30 second scene is all we get of that issue.
In an interview following the movie, Zwick said that he wanted to make a movie that was all of one piece instead of a 5 or 6 episode TV movie. Sadly, he didn't streamline the story to fit into the limited movie format. Todd is the story and what happens to him and how he changes is the core of the movie. To fit in Elizabeth, Zwick is forced to jump from out-of-control Todd to Todd as Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) in The Shawshank Redemption without the time necessary to show the transition.
Having said all that, this is a movie worth seeing. The acting is first class. Jack O'Connell and Emily Meade are incredible as the arguing, fist-fighting, loving couple from the wrong side of the tracks. Dern, as usual, is simply outstanding. And while I think that Zwick took a wrong turn or two, he has made an emotionally gripping movie. While ostensibly this movie's message is that capital punishment is wrong, the real message is that this world is unfair and you had better get used to it or do something about it. Zwick is on the side of those who want to do something about it.
Director Edward Zwick
Writer Geoffrey Fletcher
Stars Laura Dern, Jack O'Connell, Emily Meade, Jade Pettyjohn, Jeff Perry
Rating R (Violence and very brief nudity)
Running Time 2h 7m
Genres Biography, Drama