In 2009, writer David Grann published a remarkable article in The New Yorker called “Trial By Fire.” The rather lengthy piece (which you can still find here) describes the execution of a Texas man named Cameron Todd Willingham, convicted of the murder of his three daughters (one a toddler, the others twin infants) by way of setting his small town home on fire. Willingham, who most commonly used his middle name, maintained his innocence to the very end, despite being vilified as a monster and baby killer.
As a symptom of the many diseases plaguing the criminal justice system, reexaminations of Todd’s case by outsiders found that it was very possible – even very likely – that Todd was indeed innocent. At minimum there was sufficient evidence to create reasonable doubt, and Todd should have therefore been granted a new trial, as his publicly-appointed attorneys did not put up a competent defense and themselves believed in his guilt. Unfortunately, every appeal was denied, every request for review rejected. He was granted a temporary stay towards the end, but it was overturned. Then-Governor Rick Perry (now the Secretary of Energy, which is frightening on SO many levels, but not relevant here) ignored the final pleas for clemency, and Todd Willingham became quite possibly the first innocent man executed since the reinstatement of capital punishment in this country.
Ten years later, Grann’s article has been adapted into a film of the same name, directed by Edward Zwick (Glory, The Last Samurai) and starring Jack O’Connell (Unbroken) and Laura Dern (Big Little Lies). The film has gotten mixed reviews, as critics love the lead performances (and rightly so), but dock the film for its heavy-handedness in making Willingham the poster child to abolish the death penalty.
While I understand the critique – this film is far from subtle – I’d argue that that’s the entire point. Capital punishment is a controversial subject in this country, mostly because we as Americans like to let prevailing sentiment win the day on far too many occasions, and are comfortable with ignoring facts if they suit our attitudes and preconceived notions. So Trial By Fire is here to continuously smack you in the face with the facts because at some point we all have to concede that we can’t pretend they don’t exist any further. In an age where the public is being constantly subjected to gaslighting from the highest levels of our own government, this film is a reminder to trust what your eyes actually see.
Zwick is very deliberate in the first half, quickly running through the dog and pony show that was Willingham’s arrest and trial. We see eyewitnesses change testimony, an “expert” psychiatrist dub him a dangerously violent sociopath because he had Iron Maiden posters in his house, and a fire investigator state with confidence that the blaze which killed Willingham’s kids was intentionally set, and that he’s never been wrong about this sort of thing. Willingham’s lawyer offers no defense whatsoever, even though Todd himself speaks up multiple times, as does his wife, Stacy (Emily Meade of The Deuce).
About halfway through the film, as Willingham has gotten used to life on Death Row, he is introduced to Elizabeth Gilbert (Dern), a divorced mom and playwright who is interested in meeting with him as part of a prison pen pal program (ALLITERATION!) and sheer curiosity. Sympathizing with the gentle soul she encounters, she begins looking into his case, and finds the very discrepancies that his lawyers never bothered to exploit. In time, it becomes her mission to get him freed. The character witnesses are challenged, the circumstances parsed, and even the forensic evidence is debunked. But it’s all too little too late, especially in Texas, where they take an almost manic glee in their state-sponsored homicides (evidenced by a clip of Perry at a Republican Presidential debate).
The dynamic between O’Connell and Dern is superb. Both of them give nomination-worthy performances as two flawed people whose lives are forced together through tragedy. The coupling draws an obvious comparison to Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking, but there the roles are completely different. Penn’s character was not only guilty, but he was so deranged that he was proud of his crimes. He merely seeks a touch of redemption and empathy through Sarandon’s character. Here, instead, we have a most likely innocent man trying to have just a little bit of hope when all that surrounds him is despair, aided by a woman who’s trying to put the pieces of her own life back together after the loss of her ex-husband and the growing distance with her adolescent kids who resent her spending time with “a killer” instead of her family. In Dead Man Walking, the leads were using one another for their own agendas. Here, they’re working in tandem toward a common goal. And because of this, they’re able to let the dramatic tension build organically, allowing the tragedy to become palpable.
And as I mentioned earlier, I think it’s a feature rather than a bug for this film to be as in your face as possible when it comes to the core issue at hand. Whether you’re in favor of the death penalty or not (full disclosure: I am largely against it, but there are rare exceptions where I do support it), the system in place which led to Willingham’s execution is barbaric at worst and at best purely lazy. The film points out basic facts like the contradictions in witness statements to police at the scene and in their court testimony. There have been numerous studies suggesting eyewitness accounts are not reliable enough to secure a conviction, especially in capital cases, because biases can enter into the equation. Willingham had a prior criminal record for stupid shitkicker stuff when he was a teenager, and he and his wife often fought with each other (Stacy brags in court, “I gave him just as many bruises as he gave me.”), so it’s easy to paint him as willing and able to escalate his behavior to lethal levels, and eyewitnesses will adjust their testimony accordingly to fit that manufactured profile for any number of reasons.
Similarly, the psychiatrist used by the prosecution was dubbed “Dr. Death” in legal circles because he was the “expert” witness brought in whenever the prosecution wanted a slam dunk condemnation to Death Row. He was later expelled from his local medical board because he presented his opinions with malicious intent, and without ever actually meeting with the defendants to assess them personally.
And then there’s the forensic evidence. As happens to this day, the investigators went in to the scene with the result already in their mind – that Willingham had set the fire intentionally to kill his children – and then crafted a narrative around that, using their limited forensic training to fill in gaps. However, the science they used was complete bollocks, particularly in the case of what is called “crazed glass,” i.e. glass that gets cracks and patterns inside of it during a fire. The “expert” who never got these things wrong argued that crazed glass was caused by liquid accelerant, like gasoline, which implicates Willingham. But crazed glass occurs when hot glass is subjected to fast-acting cool liquid, like the water from a fire hose. In the film, this phenomenon is demonstrated by a Dr. Hurst (Jeff Perry of Scandal) in a matter of seconds by setting a piece of glass on a stove burner, then spraying water from a bottle on it.
This is basic shit, and it should have been more than enough to acquit Willingham had he gotten competent counsel. But he didn’t. He was presumed guilty even by his lawyers (two in real life, composited to one in the movie), who told him to take a plea agreement to save his own life. Willingham refused to confess to a crime he didn’t commit, much less such a heinous crime as infanticide.
But this is the problem with the system. Being indigent, Willingham couldn’t afford a lawyer who gave a shit. His trial lasted two days, and he was convicted in just over an hour by a jury in a state so cavalier about the lives of defendants that they wouldn’t even take a day to consider the weight of such a responsibility as to condemn a man to death. Once in jail, the burden of proof essentially shifts to the convict, who is now presumed guilty until proven innocent (in practical terms at least, if not an actual legal standard), and as he protests the miscarriage of justice, the pardon and parole boards have no obligation to even hear his case (the article points out that only one person had been cleared under the channels that Todd used to that point). None of this should have been allowed to happen, and yet it did. So kudos to the movie for putting front and center how absurd the whole process was. Some critics didn’t like it. I loved it. I admit I’m prejudiced on that side of the issue, but objectively, the execution accomplished the goal of the underlying conceit, so I would applaud it even if I disagreed with it.
For me, the real flaws were in the few clichés of prison drama. When Willingham arrives, he is initially abused by one of the guards (Chris Coy, also of The Deuce), but then becomes friends with him as Willingham’s humanity gradually shines through. He also gets close with another inmate named Ponchai (McKinley Belcher III from Ozark) who represents another unfortunate aspect of the Texas justice system, someone who accidentally killed a person while committing a different crime (in this case robbery). He correctly points out that in most other states he’d get 20 years for manslaughter, but in Texas, he’s going to be put down like a dog. While Ponchai was a real person (Coy’s character, Daniels, is likely a composite), both characters aren’t there as actual people, but as ciphers for the filmmakers, including Producer Alex Soros, son of liberal activist and conservative bogeyman George Soros. His involvement doesn’t discount the message, but it is good to have that bit of knowledge to bear in mind as you watch, as it might alter your interpretation.
Similarly, the family drama for Elizabeth Gilbert did nothing for me. She’s showing someone some compassion, and her kids respond by treating her like crap, especially daughter Julie, played by Jade Pettyjohn, who also played a back-talking teenager to Nicole Kidman in Destroyer last year. It’s all tired melodrama, and it takes you right out of the movie. The kids have a valid concern, in that they just lost their father to cancer, and their mom has her priorities elsewhere, and I would have liked to see that explored. Instead we got the standard issue, “You don’t know ANYTHING about me!” teenage bullshit, only this time framed as, “I can’t believe you’re trying to defend a MURDERER instead of catering to whatever I want!” There are some people who think teenagers should be locked in their rooms until they’re 30. Those people are… on to something and not entirely wrong.
Is the film obvious and manipulative? Yes. Absolutely. But when you make no illusions that you’re doing anything else, and you deliver it with award-worthy performances, it’s more than forgivable. It also helps that this obvious and manipulative message is somehow not obvious to a significant portion of the population, and that portion needs a kick in the pants occasionally. There have been quite a few good films that depict execution in stark terms, to show how grizzly it can be even when it’s argued in court as “humane.” Michael Clark Duncan was electrocuted in The Green Mile, and Clint Eastwood was insistent in depicting a hanging in Changeling, especially the struggle for the condemned to survive. Here, we get the same thing, as Willingham’s body seizes and convulses when he’s injected, something that has only come to light in recent years, as lethal injections are botched and prisoners experience excruciating pain before expiring. Willingham’s tragedy is complete, but there are parallel downers to go around. And really, the core question the film asks of us all is if we’re really willing to endorse this as a society, especially if there’s even a chance that the people involved might actually be innocent.
I can’t answer the question for you, but I know where I stand.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What are your thoughts on capital punishment and other controversial issues? Aren’t you glad I didn’t reference Billy Joel in the headline? Let me know!