Nick Broomfield’s snarky “Sarah Palin: You Betcha!,” which recently premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, does the same thing for Palin’s detractors, offering up several of her Wasilla, Alaska, neighbors who testify to her petty vindictiveness, but providing little by way of fair, cool-headed reflection or policy analysis. (Also in Toronto was “The Education of Auma Obama,” an earnest but narratively wobbly profile of Barack Obama’s half-sister in Kenya, whose warmth and achievements in economic-development activism are doubtlessly admirable, but they serve as a thin excuse for showing her home movies of a young Barack visiting his ancestral homeland.)
Thanks to Mims and Bailey’s scrupulous attention to fact and detail, “Incendiary” doesn’t need to rely on the emotion-laden testimony of friends, enemies or family members to deliver a vivid portrait of Perry, whose disdain for forensics in the Willingham case will be seen by most viewers as of a piece with his skeptical stance on climate science and evolution. More startling by far, considering Perry’s folksy, aw-shucks style on the stump, is what “Incendiary” shows about his willingness to play rough, especially when his political fortunes hang in the balance.
In 2009, the Texas Forensic Science Commission, which had been formed to review a slew of mishandled criminal investigations throughout the state, was on the verge of hearing damning testimony regarding the Willingham investigation when Perry — in the midst of the campaign for his third term as governor — suddenly replaced three members of the board. Its new chair, a steely former prosecutor named John Bradley, cuts a formidable figure as Perry’s enforcer throughout “Incendiary,” slow-walking progress on the Willingham case, stonewalling the press and craftily out-maneuvering Texas’s open-meetings laws. (Would that Perry had had his own Billy Beane to champion the facts rather than the pugnacious Bradley, whom the Texas legislature later declined to re-appoint to the post.)
As a riveting documentary in the tradition of “The Thin Blue Line” and “Paradise Lost,” “Incendiary” grabs viewers by their throats until the end — which in this case is all the more bitter for being so vague (none of the procedures that would have vindicated Willingham or clarified his case have been satisfactorily concluded).
But this superbly crafted film is even more important in showing how Perry’s dismissal of scientific fact — whether his belief that climate science isn’t “settled” or that schoolchildren can decide for themselves whether creationism and evolution is correct — isn’t just a matter of rhetoric but carries real, life-and-death consequences. What makes “Incendiary” so valuable, both as a real-life crime thriller and political portraiture, is that — its title notwithstanding — it sheds far more light than heat.
The Willingham Case
(104 minutes, at Landmark’s E Street Cinema) is unrated. It contains adult themes. Filmmakers Steve Mims and Joe Bailey, Jr. will answer questions after the 7:15 and 9:45 p.m. screenings Friday and Saturday.