The first act of Incendiary: The Willingham Case daringly avoids condescending to its audience. Braiding a brief history of fire forensics into the details of the titular, alleged arson’s case, the film finally arrives at the less-than-user-friendly conclusion that assessing the “crime scene” more scientifically could have saved a recidivist wife-beater from lethal injection. Cameron Todd Willingham of Corsicana, Texas claimed to have been awoken by already unmanageable flames that would eventually overtake his home and claim the lives of his three children, but the subsequent trial focused more on his ne’er-do-well domestic existence than the physical evidence suggesting him as the conflagration’s progenitor. The movie’s talking-head experts—the elegant, mountain man-bearded Gerald Hurst among them—explain that even as late as the ‘90s, fire investigation was more of an art than a science, with official police statements frequently including childishly anthropomorphic phrases about “talking” to the ashes.
Much like Harry Shearer’s fact-glutted doc The Big Uneasy, Incendiary exposes a crucial social dialectic without affixing a relatable, if reductive, human face to the center. Fairly early on in the film’s chronology, Willingham is executed, and the onus of clearing his otherwise rightly tarnished name spirals into a municipal war between the traditional-at-all-costs Texas Governor Rick Perry and a small group of reformist police scientists. And after abandoning whatever potential resonance Willingham possesses as a dramatic device, the movie, too, becomes frenziedly forensic: We see appeals turn into research documents turn into committees that suspiciously butt heads with filibusters behind closed doors near the Mexican border. This content is somewhat startling, insofar as we can imagine red-state officials stooping to subterfuge to preserve a flawed status quo. (The directors’ implicit, over-generalized thesis claims that Texans dole out justice anti-intellectually, with a backward-mindedness at best romantic and at worst barbaric.)
The narrative intrepidity, however, dissolves into detachment by the resolution of the court battle; the complex particulars of Willingham’s character are ignored so completely in the movie’s extended middle that we can’t properly access his eventually revealed humanity. Incendiary is ultimately not a film about him, of course, or the fire that consumed his life, and the directors seem nervous about proffering his quasi-innocence as a symbol for anything. (He’s more of an inconsequential victim, an illustration of the many arbitrary limitations of our judicial system.) But re-focusing the story arc around Willingham’s weaknesses may have more efficaciously emotionalized the material; indeed, the talking heads are most fascinating when they ruminate on whether or not he got what he deserved. Interviews with Willingham’s original defense attorney, who is against the fire-forensics revisions and maintains that his client was incontrovertibly guilty, feel like the germ of a much more effectively impish character study. “He’s the wrong poster boy for any anti-death penalty groups,” the attorney says—after pausing to ask the cameraman if there are, in fact, individuals who are actually against the death penalty.