Review: Searing New Documentary Downfall: The Case Against Boeing Calls Out a Company That Put Profits Over Safety

On October 29, 2018, a Lion Air flight crashed off the coast of Jakarta, Indonesia, shortly after takeoff. On March 10, 2019, an Ethiopian Air flight crashed into a field in that country just six minutes after takeoff. Both crashes killed every person on board, a total of over 300 people. Both aircrafts were the Boeing 737 Max, a new version of Boeing’s workhorse plane, a new model that had been recently introduced to help the company regain its market share in the consumer air travel industry. As governments, regulatory agencies, the media and the families of survivors began to dig into the cause of the crashes, blame was flung in every direction, namely from Boeing out to anyone else they could think of. It all became a shameful game of hot potato. At least, that is, until the truth of what caused both crashes was finally revealed.

Filmmaker Rory Kennedy’s (Ethel, Last Days of VietnamDownfall: The Case Against Boeing investigates the fallout from these tragedies and chronicles the dogged efforts of both Boeing to hide the truth and the government and the media to expose it. What could have easily devolved in to a fairly dry, academic affair (this happened, then this happened, and so on) instead becomes something much more stirring in Kennedy’s able hands. For every interview with a politician or journalist, Kennedy also speaks with the men and women who dedicated their lives to building Boeing’s planes piece by piece, the surviving family members grieving their lost loved ones, and the professional pilots who are not shy about expressing their disappointment, frustration and anger about Boeing’s ill-advised choices through the whole ordeal.

Step by step, the film recounts exactly how the truth about the crashes eventually surfaced, as well as what ultimately caused the fatal accidents; if you didn’t follow the news back then, I won’t spoil the findings for you here. Suffice it to say that Boeing, in an unrelenting bid to keep share prices rising and turn a profit in any way possible, cut corners in ways so egregious and unacceptable that it led to these entirely preventable tragedies. Even worse, the company tried to shift blame to the pilots and airlines in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to shield the truth. It’s all deeply objectionable, but sadly, none of it is terribly surprising; in fact, it’s perhaps the inevitable conclusion of the late-stage capitalism we’re all trying to survive these days.

Late last year, the esteemed PBS investigative journalism series Frontline released an episode called “Boeing’s Fatal Flaw,” and that production does look deeper into the flawed bureaucracies at play in addition to all of Boeing’s lack of leadership or corporate moral compass. It’s an informative, educational piece. Downfall is too, but Kennedy manages to draw out an understanding of the true human cost of these crashes, a cost that goes far beyond just the innocent souls on both planes. By digging deep into Boeing’s corporate history and exploring when and how the company fundamentally changed its approach to production, design and safety standards, the film provides a context for how we got to here—and how to ensure it never happens again.

Downfall: The Case Against Boeing is now streaming on Netflix.

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Lisa Trifone
Lisa Trifone
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