‘Downfall’: Chilling documentary makes a case that Boeing’s greed cost hundreds of lives
The facts about the 737 Max are gripping enough in a Netflix film that’s far from flashy.
Before the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster of 1986, the vast majority of us had never heard of O-rings, the seemingly unimportant but utterly essential redundant seals in the solid rocket boosters. The failure of those O-rings in one of the boosters led to the tragic explosion and the deaths of all seven crew members.
Netflix presents a documentary directed by Rory Kennedy. Rated PG-13 (for some strong language). Running time: 89 minutes. Available Friday on Netflix.
Before the shocking crashes of two Boeing 737 Max jets within five months in 2018 and 2019, almost no one outside the airline industry — and apparently even many within the business — had ever heard of the MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System), which was designed as a flight stabilizing program but turned out to be the disruptive, literally triggering factor that led to the crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 in October of 2018 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in March of 2019, causing the deaths of a total of 346 passengers and crew.
As director Rory Kennedy and her team lay out in the straightforward and sobering documentary “Downfall: The Case Against Boeing,” the underlying cause of the double tragedy is the culprit responsible for so much senseless and perhaps preventable loss through history:
With director Kennedy reporting the facts in straightforward, traditionally journalistic fashion, “Downfall” is a scathing indictment of how the crown jewel of aircraft manufacturers allegedly eschewed safety and thoroughness in favor of maximum profits. (Boeing eventually agreed to pay the Justice Department a $2.5 billion legal settlement connected to the crashes, thus resolving a criminal charge that Boeing conspired to defraud the FAA.) “Downfall” is a meticulously researched, no-frills, at times almost dry effort that often looks more like an extended network TV special than a feature documentary — but the facts and the interviews and the restrained, limited dramatic re-creations are chilling enough. This is not the type of material that should be turned into something splashy and spectacular; the reality of this story is more than startling — and in some cases, infuriating — enough to keep us in its grips.
To the filmmakers’ credit, “Downfall” makes sure Boeing gets its due as a family-built corporation that launched in Seattle in the early part of the 20th century and grew to become a dominant force in the industry with a stellar reputation. (Boeing’s corporate headquarters were relocated to Chicago in 2001.) There’s a reason “If it’s not Boeing, I’m not going!” became a generational catchphrase, given Boeing’s stellar safety record through the decades. Other than the relatively brief big-picture history lesson, the documentary focuses on the two crashes — and the series of events, sometimes decades in the making — that led to the horrific and unconscionable deaths of hundreds.
When Lion Air Flight 610 and then Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed within five months of each other, Boeing execs deflected blame and intimated the pilots’ inexperience in handling the MCAS led to human error. But as we hear in interviews with experienced pilots, including Chesley “Sully” Sullenberg; the noted Wall Street Journal veteran Andy Pasztor, and Peter DeFazio, the chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, the pilots weren’t even made aware of the system nor how to operate it. They didn’t know they had a mere 10 seconds to deactivate MCAS in case of a potentially deadly misfire. (Both planes crashed because the flawed MCAS software kept automatically pushing down on the nose of the aircraft shortly after takeoff, in response to a nonexistent crisis — thus creating a fatal crisis.)
How could this happen? As “Downfall” explains it, Boeing felt pressure to roll out the fourth generation of its signature airliner, to be called the Boeing 737 Max, in response to a mounting threat from closest competitor Airbus. However, if you have to take pilots out of the skies for simulator training — well, that costs, big time. Even after Boeing knew about the software problem with the MCAS system, its leaders refused to ground the line and hoped and prayed the necessary software fix would be installed before another plane fell from the sky.
For all its academic precision and fact-based reportage, “Downfall: The Case Against Boeing” is at its most effective when we hear from the parents, the grown children, the widows, who had to receive the worst news anyone could ever imagine. This is when “Downfall” reminds us of the real costs of those two terrible tragedies.