On Oct. 29, 2018, Indonesian carrier Lion Air’s Flight 610 crashed into the Java Sea shortly after takeoff. Nineteen weeks later, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, headed to Kenya, also crashed, leaving a deep gouge in a field near the Addis Abba Bole Airport. All told, 346 passengers and crew were killed. Both planes were new Boeing 737-Maxes. “Downfall: The Case Against Boeing” — which premiered at the virtual Sundance Film Festival — is the riveting, often rending tale of those crashes and the jet that links them.
With the eloquent testimony of family members; aviation industry experts; former Boeing engineers and quality control employees, plus a squadron of commercial airline pilots — including, arguably the nation’s most trusted, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger — director Rory Kennedy not only builds a case against Boeing but offers an object lesson in the tragic consequences of corporate greed and hubris.
When Boeing unveiled the retooled 737 Max, it promised airlines that the tweaks would not be dramatic enough to require expensive pilot simulation training. The airlines bit and bought an unprecedented number of jets. Both the airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration trusted Boeing. “Downfall” methodically shows why that confidence was misplaced.
The documentary begins with an intentionally lulling prologue. Images of gleaming airports and the diverse and vast number of people who make their way through them on any given day are set to assuaging music. The montage serves as a reminder that airline passengers board flights and head toward family, work, vacations and back with a sense of security in the flying machine that convey them. (Yes, these scenes were shot before the onboard COVID-19 contretemps so regularly reported.)
Shortly after the black box recorders were recovered for flight 302, questions about the plane’s design, already raised after the Lion Air crash, became impossible to ignore — except for Boeing’s higher ups, including then CEO Dennis Muilenburg. Initially, the company tried to put the responsibility for the tragedies on the pilots for not knowing how to handle the dramatic malfunction of the plane’s pitch stabilizing system. But the pilots Kennedy interviews offer a damning rebuff to that claim. Many of them are appalled at the chaos the MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) plunged the flight deck into once it erroneously kicked in during the planes’ ascents. In defense of the pilots and co-pilots, Sullenberger says, they “were fighting for their lives, in the fight of their lives.”
Among the many credible interviewees Kennedy calls on is former Wall Street Journal aviation and aerospace reporter Andy Pasztor. Indeed, the film’s most cautionary notes have to do with a company beginning to put profit before safety to satisfy Wall Street analysts. After the 1996 merger of Boeing with McDonnell Douglas, the company moved its headquarters to Chicago from Seattle, seemingly to put some distance between quality-minded engineers and the executives running the company. “Downfall” makes a chastising case that over the ensuing decades, an engineering-led company increasingly became a share-price-led corporation. Decisions that led to the 737 Max crises were exacerbated by market competition with the Airbus 330 in the 2000s.
Engineer Cynthia Cole is among the former Boeing employees who speak with pride about the Seattle-based manufacturer. Hers and other employees add a different layer of loss to this saga. “If it ain’t Boeing, I ain’t going,” was a saying.
Written with compassion and technical clarity by Mark Bailey and Keven McAlester, “Downfall” doesn’t shy away from images of debris fields. Yet it never exploits grief or terror even as it shows animated simulations of the flights’ final minutes. Michael Stumo’s 24-year-old daughter Samya was on the Ethiopian Airlines flight, and he appears here as one of the most vocal of the family representatives. A powerful scene comes as Stumo and other family members hold poster-size images of their loved ones during a hearing chaired by U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Or.) of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. CEO Muilenburg ever so briefly glances at the gathered families. In a show of bipartisan outrage, Sen. Ted Cruz aims a blistering barrage of questions at the exec. Muilenburg received a golden parachute of $60 million when he was fired in December 2019.
Early in the film, Garima Sethi, widow of Lion Air pilot Captain Bhavye Suneja, speaks in impressively measured tones about Boeing’s lack of accountability and its disregard for the flight crews and the families. “I wouldn’t say it’s racist,” she starts. But we are right to wonder what Boeing’s fate would have been had a U.S. airline’s 737-Max crashed on U.S. soil?