Parents' Guide to

Trial by Fire

By Tara McNamara, Common Sense Media Reviewer

age 16+

Injustice is served in true crime tale; violence, profanity.

Movie R 2019 127 minutes
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This drama succeeds in fueling the flames of America's mistrust of authority while cleverly allowing viewers to recognize their own bias. As demand continues to grow in true crime entertainment, a subgenre is emerging that exposes wrongful convictions, rife prejudice, and corrupt officials (shall we call it "untrue crime"?). Trial by Fire checks all of the boxes; it's designed to lead viewers to shock and outrage -- and perhaps to get them involved. For teens growing up in an era of hashtag activism, criminal justice reform may be a place to direct their efforts.

What makes director Edward Zwick's film especially smart is that it goes beyond showing an example of an unfair criminal justice system: It quietly and internally challenges viewers' own prejudice. The story unravels as it did for those following the news accounts of the deaths of Willingham's three daughters and his subsequent arrest, allowing audiences to play along. Do you believe Todd Willingham is guilty, or do you believe he's innocent? Are the facts as stated, or is there something else going on? Would you be inclined to think that a wife-beating town degenerate is guilty of murder -- and, even if he wasn't, that he shouldn't be alive anyway? It's a great tool, but: Parents, think twice about what your teen will take away from a film in which the villains win -- and, in this case, the "bad guys" are the police, the courts, and the governor.

Movie Details

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