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In 2018 and 2019, two different flights using the same aircraft — the Boeing 737 Max — crashed in eerily similar circumstances, killing 346 people and sparking a torrent of news coverage, a congressional investigation and a $2.5 billion Department of Justice settlement. Reporting and the congressional investigation, whose results were released in September 2020, eventually argued in part that in the face of increased competition, Boeing hastened the development of the 737 Max and didn’t disclose important information to the Federal Aviation Administration and pilots about the model.
This Friday, about a year and a half later, Netflix is releasing a new retelling of how these crashes occurred with Downfall: The Case Against Boeing. The documentary directed by Rory Kennedy (daughter of Robert F. Kennedy and the director of previous doc titles including Last Days in Vietnam and Without a Net: The Digital Divide in America) links the work environment and priorities at Boeing following its 1997 merger with McDonnell Douglas, which allegedly led to a laser focus on Wall Street stock prices, with events the film argues led to the fatal crashes, like concealing major changes from previous models from pilots and the FAA. To make its case, Downfall interviews several former Boeing workers, former Wall Street Journal aerospace reporter Andy Pasztor, House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure chair Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, pilots, aviation experts and family members of plane crash victims.
Ultimately, Downfall is the second high-profile documentary in the past year to tackle the 737 Max tragedies — The New York Times and Frontline released one last fall — and as Kennedy sees it, that’s a good thing: “I do feel that this is a hugely important issue and is deserving of a lot of different types of attention,” she says. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the director also spoke about the challenges of gaining sources’ trust after widespread press coverage, whether current regulation is sufficient and how making this film has changed the way she books flights. (In a statement to THR, Boeing states that since the Lion Air and Ethiopian Air accidents, “Boeing has made significant changes as a company, and to the design of the 737 MAX, to ensure that accidents like those never happen again.” It adds that “we continue to work with regulators and our customers to ensure the continued safe return of the 737 MAX to service worldwide” and that more than 185 out of 195 countries have approved the model to return to service since December 2020.)
When did you first become interested in making a documentary about the Boeing Max 737 crashes and why?
I followed the story quite closely and was aware when the first airplane crashed, and then was shocked five months later when the exact same kind of plane, a 737 Max, crashed, again: two airplanes, same manufacturer, same type of airplane, crashing within five months of each other. As one of the characters in our film said, that just doesn’t happen in modern aviation. I saw how Boeing responded to these events where they didn’t seem to take full responsibility for what happened and instead spent a lot of energy and resources blaming the pilots. I really wanted to make a film that looked into these events to help people understand exactly what happened and what Boeing knew when, and what we can learn from this, in the interest of ensuring this doesn’t happen again.
In terms of sourcing, what was the process like to gain the trust of family members of victims of the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes?
It was a challenge. I think that a lot of the family members had had not-great experiences with the press. I remember approaching Garima [Sethi] in particular, who was the wife of the Lion Air pilot who was piloting when the plane crashed. She had a lot of trust issues and concerns, understandably, as you could imagine. Her husband was so dedicated and committed to ensuring the safety of his passengers, he was well-trained and was accused [in the media] of being in a “third-world country” and getting third-world training and in fact, as she points out, he was trained in the United States and he was a well-respected pilot. So I think for people like that, they really were concerned that this film might be a film that would go after the pilots as well. And I think that the family members were very sensitive to, and I’m very sensitive to, asking anybody to retell a story that involves such tragedy. I feel like if you’re going to ask somebody to do that, it’s got to be for good reason. I wanted them to be able to really feel like they could trust this process with me and that I was going to continue to respect them, and their experiences and their perspectives, and I think ultimately make a film that really focused on the facts and, in doing so, would hold Boeing accountable.
You also have a number of former Boeing employees in the film who comment on how the work culture changed after the company’s merger with McDonnell Douglas. How did you end up finding those voices, and did you approach current employees as well?
Again, it was a process. I think there were a lot of people who had been approached from other news sources and weren’t always happy in terms of how things were represented. I think that it helped that I have a track record of documentaries that are well-researched, that are fact-based and that were received well, and so I think that helped with those families as well as former and some current employees of Boeing. We did approach current employees. There were a number of people who we interviewed within the film whose voices weren’t ultimately included in the film, and that was really based on how we ended up telling the story and wanting to narrow into a few voices in the film who were really people who were on the front lines of this story as it was unfolding. But yes, we approached both.
At the end of the film, the film notes that Boeing initially declined to participate and then later they answered some questions in writing. What changed?
They actually reached out to us and said, “We understand you’ve interviewed a number of whistleblowers and other people in the film,” and then they made some assertions about the validity of their voices. Our team, including our legal team and advisors, felt that was important to include, since they had reached out and made an assertion, that we include that in the film in some capacity. So we included the cards at the end of the film.
What was behind the decision to use CGI re-creations of flights in the film?
There have been a number of articles and newspaper reports about what had happened, and I read all of the main articles and I think, even if it’s well-explained, it’s complicated to understand the MCAS system; to understand what happened from the perspective of the pilots; what they were struggling with; these various alerts that were going on; what these alerts sounded like; what they looked like; how they could be distracting if you’re needing to make very fast decisions in a very short period of time. We now know that if the pilots didn’t make the right decision with that cacophony of sounds and lights and alert systems coming at them within 10 seconds, that Boeing knew that the result would be catastrophic — which means the plane would crash and everybody would die. So I really felt that it was important in this film to understand this story from the perspective of the pilots who are no longer with us. It’s not a reenactment, it’s a CGI creation of a replicated space and actions so that you can really relate and understand, after being explained some of these technical issues, what it was like from the human perspective. We’re not trying to pretend this is exactly what they [the pilots] went through, but it helps you understand technically what they were going through and then, on some level, emotionally.
Another documentary about the Boeing 737 Max jet crashes arrived on PBS’ Frontline, called Boeing’s Fatal Flaw, in 2021. Were you aware that another documentary was being made during your filmmaking process, and did that have an effect on the way you approached your own film?
I was aware at some point that the Frontline documentary was in production. It was happening at the same time, so I clearly hadn’t seen it when we were in the midst of making our film, but I had understood that it was mostly coming from the perspective of the New York Times journalists who had covered the story. But I really wasn’t aware of how they were going about telling it and how our film might differentiate from that. I do feel that this is a hugely important issue and is deserving of a lot of different types of attention. I hope that there will be multiple documentaries that approach this story in different ways in the years to come, because I think it’s deserving. For me, what was important was to really capture as many of the voices of people who were on the front lines of this story as it was unfolding, so whether it was the family members who turned into activists or Andy Pasztor, the Wall Street Journal reporter who doggedly chased this story down, or [Rep. Peter A.] DeFazio, who was really at the front lines of the congressional investigation, or people who worked at Boeing. It’s really a range of voices that help you really understand the different facets of this story as it was unfolding and hopefully helps people to understand not only what happened, but as I say, what Boeing knew when and what the ramifications of that are.
You said this story deserves a lot of different types of attention. Overall, what effect do you hope that documentaries that look into this tragedy can have?
I think there’s a lot to learn from this story. A lot of us fly, so we’re affected in having that be safe. I think that this story really shows the importance of the regulatory agencies and, in this case, the FAA, to do their job. I think the FAA failed to do its job in this case, and as a consequence, 346 people died. The FAA is made to do its job by Congress and the people who we elect, so making sure that we elect people who care about regulation is important and we as citizens in a democratically elected government are in a position to help influence that. Also, [before] making this film, I never knew what kind of plane I was going to fly on when I went to book a flight, and they don’t make it easy. But now every single time I book a flight for my children or my family, I make sure I know what kind of plane that is. The pilots who I’ve spoken to in interviewing and making this film and the family members, there are ongoing concerns that they have about the safety about the Max. That plane is back up in the air. [Boeing insists that the 737 Max is safe.] Yesterday the FAA said that because of ongoing concerns about the Dreamliner, the 787, which was also built in the McDonnell Douglas era of Boeing, they’re now going to make sure that the FAA actually regulates Boeing with the 787, instead of allowing Boeing to self-regulate, which is what it’s done historically. It seems to me that they should be regulating and doing their job. Hopefully they’ll just do that job going forward, but understanding these things is really important.
After doing all of this research and speaking to these sources, do you think that the Aircraft Certification Reform and Accountability Act and the fines and compensation that Boeing paid are sufficient to prevent further tragedies like this one from happening again?
I think that act was an extraordinary accomplishment and I think it will do a lot to deepen the protections out there, but no, and I know that DeFazio, the chair of the committee who sponsored that legislation and who very heroically led the investigation, feels the same. It’s the beginning of a process, but it’s certainly not the end. The Department of Justice under the Trump administration ruled on this case and ultimately determined that management at Boeing wasn’t responsible for what happened. It’s unclear how they came to that conclusion, and I know DeFazio feels that these crashes were the result of the culture of concealment that was the Boeing culture during the years that these planes were built, and the management was aware and ultimately responsible for what happened. And as you know, Dennis Muilenburg, who was running the company at the time of these crashes, was asked to leave [Boeing] and he walked away with a $62 million parachute. So I think that Boeing had to pay a fee, but many feel that, as DeFazio says, it was a slap on the wrist. It’s a large sum of money to most of us, but a lot of those expenses were to the airlines for grounding the plane and the costs associated with that and in terms of the overall Boeing budget and finances, it didn’t really have a significant impact. The point is, they killed 346 people and nobody has gone to prison. [Boeing declined comment on its Department of Justice agreement.] If you killed a person, you’d go to prison, so there’s something that feels, to many people, fundamentally unfair.
Anything else you want to add that we didn’t talk about?
In terms of the story points that I found most shocking and were shown in the documentary, after the first crash, Lion Air, there was a TARAM [Transport Airplane Risk Assessment Methodology] report done by the FAA that Boeing was aware of that showed that this plane had a likelihood of catastrophic crashing 15 times over the course of its lifetime. And the FAA and Boeing decided to keep the plane in the air and banked on the fact that they would make a fix to the airplane before there was another crash. And they felt that it was worth that gamble, to gamble people’s lives, because it would save them money. When you know that and you hear that and then you talk to Michael Stumo, whose daughter died on that second plane, that should never, ever have gone up in the air, it’s heartbreaking and horrific.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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