When Lion Air Flight 610 crashed into the Java Sea 13 minutes after taking off from Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport on October 29, 2018, most people assumed that whatever problem caused the disaster had nothing to do with the plane. Yes, it was a clear day and there was no evidence of terrorism, but a brand-new Boeing 737 MAX wouldn’t just fall out of the sky. Surely the blame for such a catastrophe would never belong to the proud American company whose name has become synonymous with flying itself, but rather with the low-cost Indonesian carrier and/or the foreign pilot (Capt. Bhavye Suneja) it had hired to operate the aircraft that day, whose impeccable record and U.S. training were quickly obscured behind his brown skin and Indian name.
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It was only when Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 plummeted to the Earth the following March that most people were able to see past their biases and deduce what Boeing had been trying to sweep under the rug for months: In its rush to develop a cost-efficient warhorse that might lift the company’s stock price out of the basement, Boeing had created a death trap that would keep dropping its customers out of the sky.
Rory Kennedy’s “Downfall: The Case Against Boeing” is a documentary that likewise exists at the intersection between the spectacular and the routine, as it shines a harsh light at one of the greatest evils of our time with all the panache of a “Dateline” special.
The result is a film that will shake what little is left of your faith in our corporate overlords, and leave you absolutely enraged at the lack of accountability that continues to encourage their greed over our welfare. That it does so in such a decidedly anti-cinematic fashion makes an already unpleasant viewing experience all the more difficult to watch, and yet the film’s shrugged-off aesthetic is also what makes it a fitting vessel for the impotent rage it leaves behind. Those of us who are terrified of flying (and don’t think twice about biking around Manhattan) often assign that fear to the complete surrender of control involved in stepping aboard an airplane; from its uncanny CGI recreations to its bitter closing title card, “Downfall” internalizes that same helplessness.
Of course, even nervous fliers like me understand that — statistically speaking — there are few safer modes of public transportation, and Boeing has been instrumental in making that true. As the title of Kennedy’s film might suggest, this documentary is interested in the full arc of Boeing’s reputation, and it eventually traces how the twin 737 MAX disasters were the direct result of market headwinds several decades in the making. Before “Downfall” can establish what happened in Seattle 50 years ago, however, it has to make sure we understand what happened in Jakarta and Addis Ababa in the span of less than five months.
The documentary begins with a forensic analysis of what happened aboard those two doomed flights, a process that includes appropriately lo-fi — if still nauseating — digital recreations of the crashes themselves, which are smartly absent any human characters that might distract from the sobering interviews that Kennedy conducts with a small (and perhaps too symbolic) number of the victims’ relatives. Once it’s clear that both planes went down because of the same flawed software that was designed to automatically push down on the nose of the aircraft when needed — software that the Lion Air pilots weren’t told about, and that the Ethiopian Airlines pilots were never properly instructed how to deactivate in the unreasonable 10-second window it gave them to save their lives — Kennedy hops back in time to Boeing’s mid-century boom years, when it was a company that had the integrity to prioritize the lives of its passengers over the margins of it profits.
In clear and concise fashion, “Downfall” zips through its paint-by-numbers story of corporate metastasization: Boeing was a “local” Washington state business that scaled at a reasonable pace before getting high on its biggest success (the 747). It relocated to Chicago and joined forces with McDonnell Douglas at the height of the ’90s merger mania, creating an unwieldy chimera that was at the mercy of its stock price and just a few years away from losing the majority of its market share. Cut to: Employees being worked to the bone, and/or fired when they reported concerns about the business model’s potential impact on aircraft safety. Cut to: A new version of the 787 being rushed into production in order to combat headlines about Airbus overtaking Boeing as the biggest game in town. Cut to: A deliberate cover-up of the new product’s training requirements, out of fear that the FAA might slow down the roll-out process and force Boeing to fall short of quarterly projections. Finally, cut to: Hundreds of lives lost as the result of an ethos so profoundly evil that even Ted Cruz was on the right side of history during the congressional hearings that followed.
It’s horrible beyond words that Boeing knew about the problem with the MCAS system and simply hoped it would have a software patch for it before the next time a plane went down, but “Downfall” — in typical ho-hum fashion, and leaning on as few sources as possible in order to make its point — reveals that information with the bare minimum of shock. Boeing’s strategy wasn’t a dysfunctional outlier in America’s corporate landscape; it was a clear example of the business model at work, a rounding error in the same math that car companies have used to determine recalls since the modern age first reshaped itself around their products (products that have the benefit of killing the people inside of them in smaller but more frequent batches).
To that end, “Downfall” feels more like an episode in the world’s queasiest anthology series than it does a unique piece of documentary filmmaking, and it’s hard to imagine that such a milquetoast exposé — even a vividly damning one like this — will have much of an impact once it’s released into Netflix’s bottomless abyss of true-crime content. But Kennedy’s no-frills account and its dead-end fate both reflect the helplessness so many of us have come to know on our own time, and watching her movie helps crystallize the sickness of living in a society where evil can be named, shamed, and fined $2.5 billion during a year when it had $76.6 billion in sales. Because with numbers that big, no one knows how to calculate the true cost of doing business.
“Downfall: The Case Against Boeing” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. It will be available to stream on Netflix starting Friday, February 18.
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