Trial By Fire is the work of director and noted producer Edward Zwick. It was written by Geoffrey Fletcher based on The New Yorker article of the same name by David Grann, and also on letters written by Cameron Todd Willingham from prison. Willingham is the subject of the film and he’s played by the British actor Jack O’Connell. On December 23rd 1991 in Corsicana Texas a fire broke out in the Willingham home, a tragedy that took the lives of the three children, although Todd survived, as did his wife Stacy (Emily Meade) who was at work. Investigators decided that it was arson and that Willingham was responsible. He’s charged with the murder of the children, all the time protesting his innocence, as does Tracey.
A sham trial, with a disinterested attorney, a fellow prisoner saying he’d confessed, incompetent fire investigators and testimony from a psychiatrist who’d never met Todd resulted in a guilty verdict and the death sentence. Seven years later Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern), motivated by an anti-capital punishment acquaintance, visits Todd in prison. He’s just about run out of the possibility of appeal. She starts looking into his case and finds anomalies.
Now this is not my favourite sort of film, but the airing of the incompetence and downright neglect of America’s justice system is compelling and troubling. Trial By Fire is honest in its depiction of Todd, a womanising drunk and wife-beater, he’s not seen through ros-coloured glasses at all. But as portrayed by O’Connell we see the evolution of the man in prison and the impact that evolution has on those around him. Laura Dern gives her usual solid performance as Ellizabeth.
The social message in the film about the justice served to those who are poor or black in America is excoriating. But at least this case led to a re-exmination of the forensics of fire. Edward Zwick has often made films that have a human heart, that deal with social issues – think Blood Diamond, Glory. This is another, damning the practice of capital punishment.
Trial By Fire will be available to rent in Foxtel Store from 6 May.