Coming to theaters from director Edward Zwick and Flashlight Films comes the story of the secrets and lies with “Trial by Fire.”
It is 1992 and Todd Willingham (Jack O’Connell) is in a complicated and jealousy driven relationship with wife Stacy (Emily Meade). One morning after leaving for work, Todd wakes up to his children calling him. He notices immediately that the house is filled with smoke.
Trying to get to them he becomes overwhelmed with smoke. Running outside, Todd breaks windows still trying to reach his children but the fire causes an explosion.
Dealing with the death of their three children, Todd and Stacy are pulled over after the funeral to have him arrested for murder. The town’s law enforcement have investigated the fire and come to the conclusion that Todd intentionally killed the children.
After a quick trial filled with testimony that is anger filled and no defense put in place for Todd, he is sentenced to the death penalty and sent to prison.
Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern) is a writer raising two teenagers while taking care of an ex-husband. A friend tells her about writing to prisoners and Todd lands in her life. She learns he has been in prison for twelve years awaiting execution.
Visiting him in prison, she learns about who Todd was when the incident happened and how he is now. After getting a copy of the trial she realizes that everything about it was a travesty. Todd’s only other ‘regular’ relationship is prison guard Daniels (Chris Coy) who doesn’t want to befriend a prisoner but can’t seem to help himself.
As Todd comes closer to execution, Elizabeth races to find help from those who also see the wrongs and try to make them right before it is too late.
O’Connell as Todd is a man with anger and jealousy issues in his marriage. The one thing that even his wife can agree with is that Todd loves his children. While in jail that is all he can think about while trying to figure out how he got behind bars. O’Connell gives a startling performance with moments of somber realizations that how he has lived his life has set the stage for those who want to see the execution go through.
Dern as Elizabeth is a woman dealing with so many things in her life of which none have to do with her. Reaching out to Todd and getting to know him starts a friendship that is based on the truths they both tell.
Meade as Stacy is a woman who doesn’t know how to do the right thing. Dealing with the death of her children she is constantly being pushed in all directions by family and law enforcement to agree with the verdict handed down to Todd.
Coy as Daniels tries from the moment Todd steps into the prison to dehumanize him. As the years go on, Daniels sees who this man really is and even finds himself enjoying Todd’s company. He, like Elizabeth, want someone to save a changed man.
Other cast include: Jade Pettyjohn as Julie Gilbert, Jeff Perry as Hurst, Jason Douglas as John Jackson, Wayne Pere as George Gilbert, Katie McClellan as Margaret Hays, Blair Bomar as Sandy and Rhoda Griffis as Darlene.
“Trial by Fire” is not only the story of Todd Willingham but the story of Texas, law enforcement and even then governor Rick Perry. As each step progresses from the moment Todd is arrested to the films conclusion is aimed at added another notch to the execution belt of a state that seems to have the highest in the country.
No one in the town Todd is from all the way up the ladder seemed interested in whether the truth was told or not. That’s what I took away from the film the most — the lack of concern for the possibility that the law wasn’t followed.
The cast constantly brings more and more questions to the forefront of the story as the film goes on which by the end had me totally and emotionally worn out.
Another aspect of the film is watching Todd grow as a person realizing the mistakes he made in his life. The one thing that didn’t change and perhaps actually grew was this man’s love of his children. The film explores his realizations and the truth behind the tragedy. Is he really innocent?
“Trial by Fire” is directed by Academy Award winner Edward Zwick and adapted by Academy Award winner Geoffrey Fletcher from David Grann’s article “Trial by Fire” found in The New Yorker.
In the end — stand up for what is right and for what is true!