Trial by Fire (2018 film)

Trial by Fire (2018 film)

Directed by Edward Zwick, ‘Trial by Fire’ is a 2018 American biographical drama movie. The narrative draws inspiration from David Grann’s 2009 article ‘Trial by Fire,’ originally published in The New Yorker. The film features a cast that includes Jack O’Connell, Laura Dern, Emily Meade, Jeff Perry, and Jade Pettyjohn.

‘Trial by Fire’ made its global debut at the Telluride Film Festival on August 31, 2018, before its wider release on May 17, 2019, distributed by Roadside Attractions.


On December 23, 1991, Cameron Todd Willingham awakens to a horrifying sight – his home is engulfed in flames. Despite his frantic efforts, he is unable to rescue his three daughters.

At his trial, the prosecutor, John Jackson, presents evidence suggesting that the fire was intentionally set, with gasoline forming a pentagram shape and the refrigerator blocking an exit. Witnesses testify against him, painting a picture of a violent man. Even his former cellmate, Johnny Webb, takes the stand, claiming Willingham confessed to setting the fire. Despite fervent pleas of innocence from both Willingham and his wife, Stacy, he is sentenced to death.

While on death row, Willingham endures brutal beatings and threats from both inmates and guards. Eventually, he is isolated in solitary confinement, where he deteriorates mentally. Flashbacks reveal the complexities of his relationship with Stacy, marked by infidelity and violence. Despite their troubled history, it’s evident that they care for each other, though Stacy stops corresponding with him due to her mother’s belief in his guilt.

In a bid to prove his innocence, Willingham contacts a new lawyer named Reaves, all while adapting to the harsh prison environment by standing up to the particularly aggressive guard, Daniels, and forming a friendship with fellow inmate, Ponchai James. During this period, he improves his vocabulary and writing skills with James’ assistance, who is later executed.

Willingham’s letter reaches playwright Elizabeth Gilbert, who becomes sympathetic to his case despite opposition from her ailing ex-husband and their children, who believe in his guilt. She visits the prison and is struck by Willingham’s calm demeanor. They bond over their shared struggles as parents and their love for their children. Willingham delves into art and poetry and befriends Daniels, who starts doubting his guilt after witnessing Willingham’s hallucinations about his daughters and reading his letters to Gilbert.

Gilbert begins to question the credibility of the witness statements and Reaves’ lack of progress on the case. She confronts Webb, who becomes hostile and threatens her when she probes about John Jackson allegedly paying him to lie about Willingham’s confession. She discovers that many witnesses had provided false testimony just as Willingham’s execution date is set. Gilbert and Reaves consult with Dr. Hurst, who reveals that the refrigerator had not been moved and the fire likely wasn’t arson, contrary to the jury’s belief. Unfortunately, Reaves struggles to present a compelling appeal, and Hurst’s report is unjustly dismissed. Webb later recants his testimony, but Jackson conceals this revelation.

  1. Jack O’Connell as Cameron Todd Willingham
  2. Laura Dern as Elizabeth Gilbert
  3. Emily Meade as Stacy Willingham
  4. David Wilson Barnes as Reaves
  5. Jeff Perry as Hurst
  6. Jade Pettyjohn as Julie Gilbert
  7. Joshua Mikel as Screaming Inmate
  8. Chris Coy as Daniels
  9. Jason Douglas as John Jackson
  10. McKinley Belcher III as Ponchai
  11. James Healy Jr as Arresting Officer
  12. Anthony Reynolds as Fogg
  13. Chris Shurley as Sgt. Marty
  14. Petros Papadakis as 1999 Voice of the Dallas Cowboys on the Radio

An announcement was made on August 8, 2017, revealing that Jack O’Connell and Laura Dern had been cast for a film adaptation based on the article “Trial by Fire” by American journalist David Grann. Edward Zwick was slated to direct the film, and it was to be produced by Edward Zwick, Alex Soros, Allyn Stewart, and Kipp Nelson, with their respective production companies, Bedford Falls Company and Flashlight Films, collaborating on the project.

Screenwriter Geoffrey S. Fletcher, an Academy Award winner for Best Adapted Screenplay for his work on ‘Precious,’ penned the screenplay for this film.

Henry Jackman, known for his collaboration with Zwick on ‘Jack Reacher: Never Go Back,’ crafted the film’s musical score. The soundtrack was digitally released on May 17, 2019, by Sony Classical Records.

Trial by Fire made its global debut at the Telluride Film Festival on August 31, 2018. Following this, Roadside Attractions secured the distribution rights for the film and set its release date for May 17, 2019.


According to the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 61% based on 70 reviews, with an average rating of 6.2/10. The critical consensus on the website states that ‘Trial by Fire’ has a poignant and heart-wrenching story to convey, but its effectiveness is hindered by an overly manipulative approach. On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 51 out of 100, based on assessments from 19 critics, indicating a reception of ‘mixed or average reviews.

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