Title: Incendiary: The Willingham Case
Directors: Steve Mims and Joe Bailey
A murder mystery, forensic investigation and political drama rolled into one, “Incendiary: The Willingham Case” shines a spotlight on the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texas man convicted in the arson deaths of his three young children. Enjoying particular currency given the alleged manipulation of a post-mortem state forensics commission stacked by current Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, this documentary, flatly told but engaging throughout, will appeal to both newsmagazine junkies and those impassioned by the death penalty debate.
In 1991, an early morning house fire in Corsicana, Texas felled a two-year-old girl and twin infants. Their father, the only other person home at the time, escaped. Charged and convicted largely on shaky arson evidence, Willingham was sentenced to death for the murder of his kids. Despite expert criticism of the prosecutor’s “junk science,” he was executed in 2004. “Incendiary” focuses largely on the aftermath of that verdict and event, and attempts to win a posthumous reversal of Willingham’s conviction based on fire investigation evidence.
The film, which enjoyed its world premiere at the SXSW Festival, where it picked up a special jury prize, certainly makes a persuasive case for the political cronyism of Perry — though the Texas governor is hardly the first politician to dismiss state board appointees in favor of old pals and/or more ideologically like-minded. Whether that amounts to a more sinister cover-up is doubtful, and something of a stretch (and not part of the movie’s agenda). “Incendiary” is most convincing in its evidence concerning the faulty diagnosis of arson, upon which the murder case was obviously based. Dr. Gerald Hurst and John Lentini are intelligent and articulate experts in the field, and they debunk the initial fire investigation report in crisp, relatable fashion.
Still, a weird (and white-hot) amount of outright hostility comes off of Willingham’s own defense attorney, David White, who sounds like Hank Hill from “King of the Hill” and makes no bones about his own beliefs of Willingham’s guilt, even as roosters crow wildly in the background. One could reasonably entertain the argument that such feelings could only be influenced by personal certitude and outrage over the sort of detailed confession that would be protected by attorney-client privilege. Co-directors Steve Mims and Joe Bailey give White a fair shake — he’s the skeptic in their midst — but don’t go out of their way to contextualize, frame and either bolster or refute other evidence against Willingham — like conflicting statements to police and, most particularly, an alleged confession to his wife, the mother of the children. In its failure to address these issues, “Incendiary” feels incomplete as a true crime tale.
In fact, “Paradise Lost” this isn’t. The filmmakers have the benefit of tremendously convincing experts (in particular Hurst, a physicist, speaks eloquently of the fact that so many fire investigators have no educational anchor points for elementary science), but they seem afraid of subjecting their feelings on the case to a more rigorous and thorough examination. The transition, halfway through, to a more gear-grinding procedural does not seem to suit the movie. It’s not that “Incendiary” feels like a politically opportunistic hit piece; it isn’t. It’s just that the criminal investigation and “CYA” political maneuvering that ensues feel less like two sides of the same coin and a bit more like adjacent screw-ups. One thing can be certain, however — guilty or not, you don’t want to be charged with a homicide in Texas.
Written by: Brent Simon