New from Al and Linda Lerner on Movies and Shakers: Trial by Fire

Laura Dern and Jack O’Connell give gut wrenching performances but the question still lingers today. Was an innocent man executed for not being able to save his little girls from being burned alive in their beds? This film shows how a woman, who took an interest in the case, goes up against the Texas justice system trying to stop what could be his wrongful death. 

Edward Zwick (Glory, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back) directs the true story based on an article by David Grann in The New Yorker Magazine 10 years ago. It was adapted form that article by screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher (Won an Oscar for Precious). He also used material from real letters. The film is not particularly cinematic. We’ve seen house fires, courts and prisons before. The structure of the film is documentary style and basically follows what happened from beginning to end with flashbacks to fill in the blanks.

In the film, Cameron Todd Willingham (O’Connell) is an unlikable, rebellious, low life barely existing in Corsicana,Texas with his wife and 3 little girls. British actor O’Connell plays the tough dude with a criminal record and no job who drinks too much, got married and had kids too young, and is abusive to his wife. Emily Meade is also outstanding as the resentful wife, Stacy, who has to work to feed the family and hand over money sober husband can go out drinking when he’s not taking care of the kids.

While Stacy’s at work, the house burns down with the girls in it. Willingham is in there too and tries to save the girls, but it’s too late. Director Zwick sets up scenes of the fire and Todd’s reactions in such a way that you can’t tell if he understands what is going on or if he tries hard enough to go back in and save his babies. Watching him during the mayhem with screams from little voices from inside the house is chilling. Fire and Police on the scene take his neighbor’s account of what happened and Todd is arrested and charged with murder.

In the film, Cameron Todd Willingham (O’Connell) is an unlikable, rebellious, low life barely existing in Corsicana,Texas with his wife and 3 little girls. British actor O’Connell plays the tough dude with a criminal record and no job who drinks too much, got married and had kids too young, and is abusive to his wife. Emily Meade is also outstanding as the resentful wife, Stacy, who has to work to feed the family and hand over money sober husband can go out drinking when he’s not taking care of the kids.

While Stacy’s at work, the house burns down with the girls in it. Willingham is in there too and tries to save the girls, but it’s too late. Director Zwick sets up scenes of the fire and Todd’s reactions in such a way that you can’t tell if he understands what is going on or if he tries hard enough to go back in and save his babies. Watching him during the mayhem with screams from little voices from inside the house is chilling. Fire and Police on the scene take his neighbor’s account of what happened and Todd is arrested and charged with murder.

The court scenes that follow are exasperating. Testimony and conclusions presented by prosecutors and investigators, plus his wife’s melt down on the stand, nail Todd for the death penalty. Meade portrays Willingham’s wife Stacy well as convincing but conflicted and unpredictable. Her nervous, darting eyes and hateful attitude can change on a dime and she defends Todd’s love for the girls.

He agrees saying “Anybody who can’t save his own kids don’t deserve to live, but I did not kill my own children.” O’Connell embodies the desperate Willingham who is ignorant of the rules but just keeps claiming he’s innocent. His portrayal makes you hate this guy, but still doubt whether he was really at fault. 

The second half of the film is Todd in prison and his meeting Elizabeth Gilbert, a single mother and playwright who takes an interest in The case.  Even though we’ve seen plenty of prison stories, we squirmed not knowing what violence could come next, as he’s cruelly called out by prisoners and guards going to his cell. He’s fresh fodder for their harassment, especially from toughest guard in the yard, Daniels, (Chris Coy – Detroit, The Deuce). He’s very scary. 

Laura Dern is so driven and sincere portraying do-gooder, Gilbert. Every time she visits, talking with Willingham by phone through the glass, not only does he hang on every word, we did. She becomes his pen pal, dedicated to proving his innocence by researching it herself. Even before there was one recently, there is a good #MeToo moment when a colleague tells her not to let her emotions get in the way, and she challenges him saying, “My Emotions. Why, because I’m a woman?“ That only makes her go harder to prove his innocence more.

Warning: Willingham spent 12 years on death row and was executed before she could prove his innocence. The scenes of Willingham being executed are are frightening, but show how barbaric, outdated and unnecessary the process is. Even more disturbing is that Texas Governor Rick Perry (now Secretary of Energy) could have stayed the execution while further proof of his innocence was progressing.

One of the greatest scenes in the film is when Gilbert goes to see an expert in fire damage who proves scientifically that there was no way Willingham could have set the fire. It’s a nice “Ah hah” moment that unfortunately doesn’t change the outcome. And then Gilbert had her own tragic accident trying to get the findings to the right people.

The performances are top notch and the story is an important one that, unfortunately, is ongoing in our broken justice and penal system. Willingham’s case is still being appealed to try to prove his innocence post humously. This is not a great film, but it is one of many stories that inspires people to join The Innocence Project and other organizations to fight for those who can’t fight for themselves. And for that reason, this is a film worth seeing. 

Roadside Attractions           2 hours 7 minutes        R

Check local listings. Now playing at Landmarks Century Theater

from Movies and Shakers http://bit.ly/2WOWkU2

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