‘Downfall: The Case Against Boeing’ Review: Damning Aviation Doc

On October 29, 2018, Indonesian carrier Lion Air Flight 610 crashed into the Java Sea shortly after takeoff. Nineteen weeks later, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, bound for Kenya, also crashed, leaving a deep gash in a field near Addis Abba Bole airport. A total of 346 passengers and crew were killed. Both planes were new Boeing 737-Max. “Downfall: The Case Against Boeing” – which premiered at the virtual Sundance Film Festival – is the gripping and often harrowing tale of these crashes and the jet that connects them.

With the eloquent testimony of family members; aviation industry experts; ex-Boeing engineers and quality control employees, plus a squadron of commercial airline pilots – including, arguably the most trusted in the country, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger – director Rory Kennedy doesn’t just mount a case against Boeing, but offers a lesson in the tragic consequences of greed and corporate hubris.

When Boeing unveiled the retooled 737 Max, it promised airlines that the modifications wouldn’t be large enough to require expensive pilot simulation training. Airlines have bitten and purchased an unprecedented number of jets. Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration have trusted Boeing. “Downfall” methodically shows why that trust was misplaced.

The documentary begins with a deliberately rocking prologue. Images of sparkling airports and the large number of people who pass through them every day are set to soothing music. The montage is a reminder that airline passengers board flights and head to family, work, vacation and home with a sense of security in the flying machine that transports them. (Yes, those scenes were shot before the onboard COVID-19 setback so regularly reported.)

Shortly after the recovery of the black box recorders for Flight 302, questions about the plane’s design, already raised after the Lion Air crash, became impossible to ignore, except for the top brass at Boeing. , including CEO Dennis Muilenburg. Initially, the company attempted to blame the tragedies on the pilots for not knowing how to handle the dramatic malfunction of the aircraft’s pitch stabilization system. But interviews with the Kennedy pilots offer a damning rebuttal to this assertion. Many of them are appalled at the chaos the MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) plunged the cockpit into once it erroneously triggered during aircraft climbs. To defend the pilots and co-pilots, says Sullenberger, they were “fighting for their lives, in the fight of their lives.”

Among the many credible people Kennedy interviewed was Andy Pasztor, a former aviation and aerospace reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Indeed, the film’s most cautious ratings concern a company that begins to put profit before safety to satisfy Wall Street analysts. After Boeing merged with McDonnell Douglas in 1996, the company moved its headquarters to Chicago from Seattle, ostensibly to put some distance between quality-conscious engineers and company executives. “Downfall” makes a chastening case that over the ensuing decades, a company run by engineering has increasingly become a company run by stock price. The decisions that led to the 737 Max crisis were exacerbated by market competition with the Airbus 330 in the 2000s.

Engineer Cynthia Cole is among former Boeing employees who speak proudly of the Seattle-based automaker. His and other employees add another layer of loss to this saga. “If it’s not Boeing, I’m not going”, they said.

Written with compassion and technical clarity by Mark Bailey and Keven McAlester, “Downfall” doesn’t shy away from debris field imagery. Yet it never exploits grief or terror even though it shows animated simulations of the last minutes of flights. Michael Stumo’s 24-year-old daughter Samya was on the Ethiopian Airlines flight, and here he comes across as one of the family’s most vocal representatives. A powerful scene comes as Stumo and other family members hold up poster-sized 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 takes a brief look at the reunited families. In a show of bipartisan outrage, Sen. Ted Cruz fires a barrage of questions at the executive. Muilenburg received a golden parachute of $60 million when he was fired in December 2019.

At the start of the film, Garima Sethi, widow of Lion Air pilot Captain Bhavye Suneja, speaks in measured and impressive tones about Boeing’s lack of accountability and disregard for flight crews and families. “I wouldn’t say it’s racist,” she begins. But we are right to wonder what would have been Boeing’s fate if an American airline’s 737-Max had crashed on American soil?

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