If you’re going to make a movie about the execution of a potentially innocent man, what better place to go than the Lone Star State? Governors George W. Bush and Rick Perry both practically bragged about their number of kills, but Perry turned out to have the most infamous “oops”: covering his ears and going la-la-la-la-la in the face of evidence that a man named Cameron Todd Willingham might not have burned his three little girls to death, then doubling down in the ensuing years as more of his state’s case against Willingham crumbled.
Outside Texas, we wouldn’t know much about Willingham if attorneys at the Innocence Project hadn’t worked diligently to discredit his prosecution; if Elizabeth Gilbert, a 47-year-old Houston French teacher and playwright, hadn’t begun a correspondence with Willingham in 1999 and kept the story alive; and if writers for the Chicago Tribune, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and The New Yorker (among others) hadn’t continued to dig. A documentary, Incendiary: The Willingham Case, was released in 2011, and now comes Ed Zwick’s Trial by Fire, starring Jack O’Connell as Willingham and Laura Dern as Gilbert, based on David Gann’s 2009 New Yorker article.
The movie is painstakingly well made and murderously hard to sit through. It opens with a house erupting in flames and Willingham staggering out, screaming, as his children burn to death. It continues through a trial so seemingly unjust that you want to yell obscenities at the prosecutor along with Willingham. Zwick and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher are careful to show that the investigators who trudge through the charred house strongly believe Willingham set the fire to kill his daughters (“He’s a sick puppy!”) and that the burn was devised to leave the shape of a pentagram behind (because Satan worship). They aren’t looking to frame Willingham for a crime he didn’t commit. And while it’s likely that the prosecutor, John H. Jackson (Jason Douglas), made a deal with another convict in exchange for damning testimony (Jackson was recently acquitted of misconduct when the state’s key witness against him took the fifth), there’s little doubt he was convinced he was frying a baby-killer. It’s important that Zwick isn’t cynical about the prosecution’s motives, because they’re beside the point. Even if most law enforcers (police, FBI, CIA, NCIS, CSI, etc.) are on the side of the angels, that’s not the big lie that fuels our movies and TV shows. The lie is that they’re always competent at what they do.
The dramatic wrinkle in Trial by Fire is that Willingham (who goes by “Todd”) isn’t a good guy. He’s a philandering, alcoholic ex-con with a history of hitting his wife, Stacy (Emily Meade). O’Connell is smallish and less physically menacing than the real Willingham, but in flashbacks he’s frightening — he seizes Stacy and hisses in her face that she’s a bitch and a whore. O’Connell has played prisoners in Starred Up and Unbroken, so we’ve heard his primal howls of pain and rage before. What’s different in Trial by Fire is that Willingham has sinned in his own eyes, as an abusive husband and a father who couldn’t save his children from the flames. O’Connell makes it plain that even if Willingham were exonerated, he’d never be free of guilt.
After nearly an hour of watching Willingham reviled, betrayed, and beaten to a pulp by prison guards, we’re ready for Laura Dern’s Gilbert to bring the film a whisper of humanism. What she brings, of course, is much louder than that. Gilbert has volunteered to be a pen pal to a death-row inmate but never dreamed she’d discover that Willingham’s defense attorney hadn’t challenged a single witness or come up with any alternate scenario for the jurors to consider. Some actors wouldn’t be convincing — let alone thrilling — while poring over trial transcripts, but when Dern’s eyes widen and her mouth wiggles into sundry expressions of dismay, you want to know what she just read. She’s a great detective actress; she externalizes thought. The script takes the most obvious cliché off the table by acknowledging it: A woman in Gilbert’s book club breezily tells her not to become “one of those women who fall in love with a death-row inmate.” Gilbert’s desires are platonic but no less passionate. As she gives more and more time to Willingham’s case, her two children (she’s divorced) begin to wilt from inattention, but such is her desperation to make a difference that even they are drawn in.
Zwick and Fletcher are out to indict the system, not the people, who even at their worst are damnably human. Meade’s Stacy has so many conflicting emotions — love, guilt, anger, fear, grief — that it’s a wonder she can even form words. (It’s a superb performance.) Chris Coy underplays beautifully as the guard whose sadism slowly yields to compassion. Zwick has a wild card in the marvelous Jeff Perry as Gerald Hurst, the chemist and fire expert who likens the original investigators’ beliefs to astrology. (His monologue on the history of cretinous belief systems is a thing of beauty.) No one plays Perry, the governor who pointedly refused to consider new evidence, although Perry himself makes a cameo appearance behind the closing credits; he says Texas has sterling integrity in the area of executions.
Zwick does careful, unsensational work. He gets fancy only a few times: once when Willingham materializes in Gilbert’s kitchen as he’s reading a letter from her and once when Gilbert finds herself in the corridor leading to the execution chamber reading a letter from him. I found it harder to take the scenes in which Willingham talks to his dead older daughter, who sits beside him drawing pictures at the age she’d be if she had lived, not because those scenes aren’t well done but because they’re too well done. They’re heartbreaking. I confess I couldn’t watch most of the death-chamber scene. At one point, I stepped out of the theater but was forced to go back in when I came face-to-face with O’Connell and Dern, who were waiting to take part in a post-screening Q&A with legal experts. There was nowhere to run.
My liberal friends tend to be shocked by my position on the death penalty; they oppose it on moral grounds, while I have no problem whatsoever with the idea of the state (not an individual) taking the lives of especially vicious murderers. But I’ll never support the death penalty (or vote for a politician who does) because it will never — and can never — be justly applied. And that’s not just because detectives, medical examiners, and attorneys are so often incompetent. It’s because the last line of defense is men like Rick Perry, who would rather say “oops” over your dead body than be seen as being soft on crime.