Three new movies, “Trial By Fire,” “The White Crow,” and “Red Joan,” have at their core real-life individuals who find themselves in situations that generate intense conflict, thus creating dramas about fiercely determined characters.
“Trial by Fire” is about Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’Connell), an unemployed drunken layabout with limited skills and no ambition. He was convicted in 1991 in a small Texas town of murdering his three very young daughters by setting fire to the family’s tiny house.
He’s sentenced to death in a prison system that comes across as barbaric. The thrust of this intense film is that Willingham probably didn't commit the crime. But, how do you prove it when there are allegedly no sensible answers to the horror that befell little children who are described in court as angels?
The prosecution makes questionable hurried decisions, the judge is complicit, the Public Defender is inept, and the jury hears tales of severe domestic abuse, which is vehemently denied by the accused. Even his wife Stacy (Emily Meade), the family breadwinner, refuses to accept that her husband was capable of the horrendous murders. Texas justice is quick and raw.
Wellingham insists he is innocent. His time in prison begins with brutal violence, including assaults by a prison guard and beatings by other death row inmates eager to assert their manhood against a “child killer.”
Director Edward Zwick and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher not only tell the fact-based story with rich detail, but they strive to show the audience that what happens to Willingham is not unusual. Their main goal is to certify his innocence. The movie is angry, but in a believable way. It’s based on a New Yorker magazine story by David Grann that was published in August 2009. I highly recommended reading it after seeing “Trial By Fire.”
The lawyers and legal bureaucrats we encounter are intellectually lazy. Local arson investigators ignore important clues, focusing on things that cannot possibly be true. Pre-trial jailhouse snitches earn thanks and a promise of freedom.
Enter Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern), a divorced mother of two teenagers from Houston, who teaches French and is a local playwright of some interest. She signs up for a program in which civilians become “prison pen-pals,” engaging in comforting letter writing to inmates, who write back. She draws Willingham as her pen-pal, and the already riveting film soars into the stratosphere.
The more Gilbert learns about her new “friend,” the more she insists to all who will listen that he is innocent. She is his champion in a brave, but also risky way. The clock is ticking to the death sentence being carried out. There’s a well-constructed scene with a lively arson investigator (a man named Hurst played by Jeff Perry) that adds genuine excitement.
The well-made “Trial By Fire” got lost in the recent awards shuffle, and it should’t have been. The movie is exquisitely acted by all, with both O’Connell and Dern utterly brilliant. The film is passionate and heartbreaking. This true story deserves to be seen.
“The White Crow” is about the desire to flee one’s country for a new work ethic. In 1961, Rudolf Nureyev, considered to be the greatest male dancer of his generation, escaped the confining structure of the Soviet Union’s Kirov Ballet, while on an extended tour in Paris.
Director Ralph Fiennes, who also acts in the beautifully appointed movie, and his screenwriter David Hare, tell the story of Nureyev’s defection with style, superb acting, and some exceptional dance moments. In a rare act of filmmaking courage, “The White Crow” doesn’t fear male nudity. The airport sequence in which the dancer will defect is tense and thrilling.
Ever-present Soviet minders didn’t appreciate 23-year-old Nureyev’s desire to visit jazz clubs or talk with Parisians about life and art and literature. He was followed everywhere he went. The watchers accepted his being gay (the once-impoverished child is now a moneymaker), but they could not accept his iconoclastic temperament. A rule breaker by nature, he’s seen as a “problem.” What to do about Rudolf?
Nureyev’s philosophy of ballet was to jettison the more rigid moves favored by male dancers and to incorporate some female fluidity and to not be afraid of being increasingly more creative. He often insulted other members of the ballet corps. His ego was epic. This did not sit well with the traditionalists.
“The White Crow” is never dull, and the entire cast is up to the challenge. Special acclaim goes to the astonishing professional ballet artist Oleg Ivenko as Nureyev. Fiennes directs the story perfectly.
In "Red Joan," directed by Trevor Nunn and written by Lindsay Shapero, Judi Dench plays a British woman who, in her 80s, is arrested for treason. When she was a young physicist, she delivered Britain’s earliest atomic secrets to the Soviets.
Unfortunately, actress Dench is not at the center of the film. The flatly told tale offers too many flashbacks and bland reenactments of young Joan Stanley (Sophie Cookson) being a KGB agent.
Joan’s first encounter with Communism is in 1938 at Cambridge. She has fun with a lad named Leo (Tom Hughes), and they commiserate with each other over how unfair and unequal the world is. Decades later, Joan faces legal challenges she thought she had avoided.
A better movie might be found in what surely was a daunting investigation.