Reel Reviews | Trial by Fire

by Charles Kirkland, Jr.

Oscar winner Edward Zwick returns to directing with the drama, Trial by Fire.

Cameron Todd Willingham is not the best husband to his wife, Stacy. They fight often and loudly. Each accuses the other of infidelity and are violent in their fights. Stacy emasculates Todd, calling him worthless because he is unemployed. When he returns one morning after an all-nighter, Todd is relegated to being the stay at home dad to their three girls. By all accounts, Todd appears to be worn out and frustrated with his wife. So when a fire breaks out in the home while Stacy is at work and kills the three girls, all suspicions are that Todd killed them. Todd is adamant though that he did not kill them.

Trial by Fire is the dramatic account of the real-life events that led up to the execution of Todd Willingham in the state of Texas in 2004. The movie is directed by Edward Zwick (Glory, Courage Under Fire, Blood Diamond) and written by Geoffrey Fletcher (Precious) and David Grann, based upon the New York Times article by Grann.

Zwick has made a career of creating tense and emotional dramas that call for great acting chops (Denzel Washington won his first Oscar in Glory). Jack O’Connell is no Denzel but he shows great range in this performance which is significantly greater than the underrated work that he did in Money Monster. Zwick documents the journey of Willingham from irredeemable to unredeemable but it is O’Connell’s fire that fuels the car. Similarly to DiCaprio’s Danny Archer in Blood Diamond, the audience is forced to look upon O’Connell’s Todd Willingham initially with disdain and disgust but as the story unfolds and time passes we see Willingham grow and morph into someone totally different.

Zwick has stated that Fire is as much a movie about relationships as it is an indictment of the ills of death penalty justice. While the violent and angry interactions between O’Connell and Meade (who also played O’Connell’s girlfriend in Money Monster) are the impetus for the events in the movie, the tender connection between Todd and Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern) is the spark for change and growth. In fact, Zwick was given access to the letters Todd had written by Gilbert in real life as a source of information for the story. Zwick even uses excerpts from the letters to illustrate Todd’s growth in intelligence and character.

If there is a downfall to the movie, it is in the pacing. Meant to be slow and deliberate, Fire at times drags through scenes. There is power in the story and this movie tells a powerful one. It thoroughly takes its viewers through the first act of the fire and the trial. The second act begins 48 minutes into the film with the introduction of Laura Dern’s character and while it takes its time in developing, it is never clearly explained as to what caused Elizabeth Gilbert to meet with Todd Willingham. There are many inferences but no definitive answer which makes the audience unable to connect emotionally with Gilbert.

At its core, Trial by Fire is an indictment of a criminal justice system that betrays its duty to rehabilitate by enforcing a death penalty. The state of Texas and Governor Rick Perry, particularly, wear the fact that the death penalty has been used as a badge of honor, showing how tough they are on crime. Zwick’s movie shows that rehabilitation and redemption can occur during incarceration but even more so asks the moral question, is it honorable to kill a man when he may be innocent?

Rated R for language throughout, some violence, disturbing images, sexual material and brief nudity, Trial By Fire is a gripping and moving experience that may spark a discussion about the morality and horrors of the death penalty but it will truly be remembered as a powerful and intense relationship drama that documents one man’s journey to redemption.

Grade: B