Trial by Fire

Movie review by
Tara McNamara, Common Sense Media
Trial by Fire Movie Poster Image
Injustice is served in true crime tale; violence, profanity.
  • R
  • 2019
  • 127 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Film is meant to stoke outrage in an attempt to abolish the death penalty; viewers' take on its message will largely depend on their view of that issue. Authority figures/institutions are portrayed as untrustworthy.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Elizabeth Gilbert is a thoughtful woman with a big heart who shows compassion to those that others feel are undeserving. Out of kindness, she perseveres, spending time and energy to try to save the life of a wrongly imprisoned inmate.


A fire ravages a house with three children inside; brief glance of crime scene photo of child's body. Several beatings are shown, including by police to a restrained inmate and between a married couple -- which then, troublingly, leads to lovemaking. A man threatens a woman with an unseen gun. Frequent yelling, taunting, name-calling. Pentagrams associated with devil worship are a part of the plotline.


Quick cutscenes show a married couple readying for sex; the woman is topless, then puts on her bra after sex while her husband is lying in bed next to her. They have a complicated relationship: They love each other, but they also argue, fight, hit, and throw insults at each other.


Frequent use of many swear words, especially "f--k" and "s--t." A man calls his wife "whore," "slut," and "bitch."


Ford truck. Budweiser beer.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Characters drink beer and talk about drinking.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Trial by Fire depicts the wrongful execution of Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O'Connell). It's a thought-provoking drama that's designed to give insight into both the bleak existence of a prisoner on death row and how prejudice can cloud the outcome of the criminal justice system. A compassionate woman (Laura Dern) doggedly pursues trying to overturn his conviction; her failure may send teens a "why try?" message. A married couple has a passionate but abusive relationship: They argue with, taunt, and beat each each other until they're black, blue, and bloody -- and in one troubling instance, that kind of confrontation leads to sex and loving affection. Another sexual scene shows a woman topless. Other brutal beatings happen, including by cops, and there's a passenger view of a car crash, as well as a fire ravaging a house with three children inside. Expect extensive use of profanity ("s--t," "f--k," and more), including in front of children and to authorities. Pentagrams associated with devil worship are a part of the plotline.

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What's the story?

TRIAL BY FIRE examines the injustice exacted against Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O'Connell), a small-town troublemaker who was convicted and executed for the death of his three daughters due to prosecutorial misconduct and suppression of evidence. Laura Dern co-stars as Elizabeth Gilbert, a playwright from Texas who fought passionately to try to save him after becoming Willingham's pen pal. The story is based on actual events.

Is it any good?

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.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Parents can talk about how the criminal justice system is portrayed in Trial by Fire. Why do you think the Texas governor, the courts, and the district attorneys would ignore evidence that would exonerate WIllingham?

  • The film says that before the investigation began, detectives already believed Willingham was guilty, so they only saw the evidence that would justify their conclusion. In what other ways does this happen? How can we prevent our biases from leading us to inaccurate conclusions?

  • Did this movie change or intensify your feelings about the death penalty? Do you feel that was its intent? Who do you think the intended audience is?

  • How does Elizabeth demonstrate compassion? Do you think someone convicted of a terrible crime deserves kindness and human connection? Why is compassion an important character strength?

  • How does Willingham show personal growth while in prison? Do you think people can change?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love fighting injustice

Character Strengths

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Themes & Topics

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