Downfall: The Case Against Boeing, 2022.
Directed by Rory Kennedy.
An investigation into the two Boeing 737 MAX crashes that killed 346 people, exploring both the root causes and the human cost.
Oscar nominee Rory Kennedy’s (Last Days in Vietnam) new documentary may offer a fairly by-the-numbers treatment of the Boeing 737 MAX scandal, yet the facts of the portentously-titled Downfall: The Case Against Boeing, due to release on Netflix on February 18, are simply too overpoweringly enraging to not hit the mark.
It goes without saying that all but the most aerophobic of us take the safety of aircrafts for granted; after all, we’re orders of magnitude more likely to die during our day-to-day bustle than become a casualty statistic in a plane crash. Until 2018 the regard with which the general public held primo aircraft manufacturer Boeing was never in doubt, and so as one pilot puts it in the film, “When a pilot doesn’t want to fly a brand new Boeing, that’s an issue.”
But following the fatal crashes of two Boeing 737 MAX aircrafts in October 2018 and March 2019, causing a total of 346 fatalities, the company’s reputation was called into question by investigators, the media, the general public, and of course the victims’ families. What follows is a deeply upsetting and horrifying expose of Boeing’s industrious attempts to conceal its corner-cutting culpability in the crashes, both of which were entirely preventable with more ethical business practises.
Kennedy’s doc efficiently traces the means through which the two crashes were parsed by the world at large. After the 2018 Jakarta crash, a blame game played out across mass media outlets, the finger being pointed at the airline, allegedly “incompetent” pilots (who, it turns out, received pilot training in the U.S.), and most anyone but Boeing themselves. The world simply couldn’t conceive of the crash being caused by an issue on their end, such was the unflappable confidence in the company.
The cause of the crash was ultimately determined to be a design flaw in the MCAS flight stabilisation software, the existence of which Boeing had not even told many pilots. The blowback was swift and righteously fierce from both the public and pilots’ unions, yet Boeing remained indignant, refusing to ground the 737 MAX line despite mounting pressure.
And then the other shoe dropped 19 weeks later, with the second crash in Ethiopia. With Boeing still refusing to accept a design issue with their planes and the FAA unwilling to issue an all-points grounding order, it fell to individual nations to deliver their own missives.
The bulk of Downfall digs into the efforts of journalists, politicians, and the victims’ loved ones to hold Boeing to account for what happened, though inevitably the company hired Washington PR bigwigs to smear the pilots and ensure the company’s share price was affected as little as possible.
Kennedy juxtaposes this teardown of Boeing’s reputation in the public eye with a travelogue of the company’s origins and the peerless reputation their built for innovation and safety over many decades. They made travel more affordable for millions with their larger airliners, but following Boeing’s 1996 merger with aerospace giant McDonnell Douglas, the culture changed completely. With a new executive guard sworn in, Boeing became industriously geared towards the acquisition of wealth, pathologically committed to boosting quarterly shareholder returns.
While it would be more than two decades later that Boeing’s reputation cratered with the wider world, inside the company it quickly became clear that safety was being sacrificed for money. Costs were cut, employees were laid off en masse, and as one ex-employee says, “it was like they were making washing machines.” These issues only became exacerbated after rival Airbus overtook Boeing’s market share in 2003, prompting desperation at the executive level.
“Difficult” employees who raised concerns were fired, moved on, or even had their pay docked, and rather than create a true successor to the 737 to compete with Airbus, Boeing’s brass decided instead to modify the decades-old 737 into its derivative MAX model. This required less FAA approvals and didn’t necessitate pilot re-training, no matter the surreptitious inclusion of the fatally designed stabilisation software.
The plan seemingly paid off with record-breaking orders for the 737 MAX, yet less than 18 months after entering service disaster struck. The subsequent investigation did nothing to aid Boeing’s public standing, with damning documents detailing their comprehensive awareness of the aircraft’s risk, and a culture of subterfuge intended to “Jedi mind trick” regulators (their words) into letting the craft pass certification.
It’s a nauseating information dump that’s intercut with horrifying footage of the families visiting the crash sites and mourning. Kennedy also speaks to several relatives of those killed in the crashes, capturing the widespread grief an air-traffic accident can cause, tearing hundreds of families apart all over the world. Such is the burden of responsibility an aircraft manufacturer holds, and why it’s so poignant to see then-Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg hauled before Congress in front of those his company bereaved.
Easy though it is to suggest that the company gambled with human lives and it didn’t pay off, how did they really suffer beyond fines and a hit to their stock price? As a predictable closing title card confirms, Boeing paid their way clear of criminal charges. And though the 737 MAX is now back in the air, we’re left with the advice of one journalist to remain ever-skeptical of not just Boeing but any company that balances the worth of human life against a number on a balance sheet.
Though the bulk of Kennedy’s film takes a fairly down-the-line, dry approach to detailing the case, there is one major stylistic misstep, with the inclusion of goofy, garish CGI recreations of the crashes, complete with dramatic music. While the intent is to demonstrate the impossible position the pilots were put in mid-flight, there’s a pervadingly chintzy, iffy quality to these asides.
With data this damning, it would’ve been near-impossible for this doc not to score a slam-dunk against Boeing, even though the staid talking heads format sometimes works against it. If presented in relatively programmatic fashion, Downfall effectively indicts an infuriating corporate conspiracy that put share prices ahead of human lives.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.