Movie Review: Incendiary, The Willingham Case

Mike Finkelstein recently saw a documentary that turned him inside out.  Here is his review for “Incendiary: The Willingham Case”.

PLOT: A documentary on the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted for the arson murder of his three daughters in 1991.  Willingham always professed his innocence, yet despite expert criticism of the arson “evidence”, was executed in 2004.  This is the story of the execution’s backlash, and the possible political motives behind not letting the courts overturn the sentencing.

Check out the trailer:

MIKE’S REVIEW: In 1991, Cameron Todd Willingham’s house burnt down with his three daughters inside.  As Todd’s story goes, he was awoken by his oldest daughter, and when he couldn’t get his twins out, ran outside to where he thought his oldest was waiting.  Numerous witnesses said when he realized all three daughters were still inside, he had to be restrained and even handcuffed to stop him from running back in and facing certain death.  However, due to an expert fire investigation (or what was considered expert at the time), it was concluded that the fire was arson, and Willingham was tried and executed for a crime he denied until the very end.

The debate of guilt versus innocence would be worth 90 minutes of screen time in itself, but INCENDIARY actually only spends about 20 minutes on the case.  The rest of the time focuses on the following decade, and the growth of the case into something that can only be taken from the pages of a crime novel.  Was Willingham really guilty?  Did Governor Rick Perry know he was wrong when he didn’t save him?  Is the government still trying to cover their tracks even today?

INCENDIARY comes to us at a very interesting time.  Only a few weeks ago, Troy Davis was executed by the state of Georgia despite overwhelming evidence that he was wrongfully convicted, and massive protests by political figures, religious figures, celebrities and common folk.    At the same time, Texas Governor Rick Perry is one of the front-runners for the United States Presidency.  INCENDIARY subtly comments on both of these issues, making it both a piece that tries to help us learn from history, as well as something amazingly relative to today.

Steve Mims and Joe Bailey Jr’s goal is to pull the curtain on the Texas government (more specifically, Perry), and their (his) attempts to suppress a massive mistake.  Yes, from the first frame, we know that they believe Willingham didn’t commit arson murder.  With the expert testimony and footage they put together, you can’t help but agree.  You immediately relate when you think of all the corruption in the government today, of Troy Davis only a few weeks ago, and the flames of anger and resentment ignite.  You think about our president possibly being a man who will go to great lengths to cover his tracks, and you get riled up.  It’s just another example of something gone wrong that may never be put right.

More interestingly, however, is how at the end of the film, you realize that while you’re pissed and have all these facts to lead you to the “right” answer, you actually don’t know if Willingham was guilty or not.  There is just enough of a seed of doubt planted in your head to get you wondering, including a beautifully placed final commentary that completely flips everything you were being led to believe up until that point. Why would Mims and Bailey do this?  Because while they want their voices and their reasoning heard, they also realize that there is another side to it.  They give the viewer just enough to feel educated, but make him want to research more on his own, almost as if they have that much confidence in both their film and their point of view, that they want you to decide for yourself.  That says a lot.

In the end, INCENDIARY leaves you on a note best described as unnerved and uncomfortable.  No matter where the battle ends up or who uses Willingham’s case as their poster case, there are two very simple, disturbing questions that needs to be answered: Was an innocent person murdered, and Is corruption in our government that bad?  Mims and Bailey ultimately want you to decide that for yourself, but they give a hell of a persuasive start.


Mike’s LIKES:

1) VISIONARY STORYTELLING: With every topic discussed, the film never stays static.  It always tells its story through beautiful imagery and pictures.  Visually stimulating even during long batches of monologue.

2) COME TO YOUR OWN CONCLUSIONS: An open ending lets you decide what you really want to believe.  It gives you the beginning of the research, and now it’s your turn to look into the topic further and figure out what you decide is the truth.

2) “ATTORNEY/CLIENT PRIVILEGES”: Disturbing final line of the film that will have you thinking long after you left the theater.


1) MORE ABOUT WILLINGHAM: Would have loved to know more about Willingham, himself, but I was motivated to do my own research afterwards, which is more powerful than just being told everything straight out.


1) Official Site to Support Willingham –

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