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Incendiary: The Willingham Case: Film Review

Incendiary Poster Art - P 2011

The Bottom Line

Crime doc about a dubious arson case is made more interesting by the involvement of Rick Perry.

Directors/producers/
directors of photography

Steve Mims, Joe Bailey Jr.

A straightforward look into a highly suspect murder conviction, this doc from Steve Mims and Joe Bailey Jr. dissects the case against Cameron Todd Willingham, said to have killed his three young daughters in 1991.

NEW YORK -- A compelling justice-denied doc with implications reaching far beyond the specifics of one event, Incendiary: The Willingham Case argues that factions in the Texas government put an innocent man to death. Filmmakers Steve Mims and Joe Bailey Jr. have subject matter that in itself justifies a niche theatrical release; with one of the scandal's key players now a serious candidate for president, box-office appeal is multiplied.

Beginning as a straightforward look into a highly suspect murder conviction, the film dissects the case against Cameron Todd Willingham, said to have killed his three young daughters by setting fire to his Texas home in 1991. Despite the unlikelihood of the crime and doubts cast by eyewitness testimony, a hurried arson investigation found him guilty. In fascinating interviews with fire experts (accompanied by stylish images of spreading flame), we learn just how little science was involved in the investigation, which relied heavily on "folklore" passed from fireman to fireman over the years.

Establishing how likely it was that the conviction was flawed -- that, in fact, there was no arson -- the filmmakers move to the failed effort to stay the execution and, afterward, to the outcry from journalists convinced that Texas willfully ignored solid evidence of Willingham's innocence. The case becomes a rallying point for opponents of the death penalty, much to the dismay of law-and-order types interviewed here.

Gov. Rick Perry figures heavily in this narrative, making changes to investigatory bodies that appear motivated by electoral politics instead of justice, but Mims and Bailey refrain from making the film about him, spending more energy tracking a man he hired to sweep science under the carpet: John Bradley, the former chair of a committee on forensic science, who comes across in footage of public meetings as a shameless opponent of the truth.

Solidly engaging throughout, the doc does take longer than it should to present viewers with some crucial facts, and in its final third it cuts back and forth between two events for reasons that are hard to discern. Neither flaw should dim its appeal for viewers more interested in broader political relevance than filmmaking aesthetics.

Opens: October 7 (Truly Indie)
Production Company: Yokel
Directors-producers-directors of photography: Steve Mims, Joe Bailey Jr.
Music: Graham Reynolds
Editor: Steve Mims
No rating, 102 minutes