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It’s easy to tell from watching Downfall: The Case Against Boeing that director Rory Kennedy sees her documentary as an urgent piece of consumer advocacy, a 21st-century version of Ralph Nader’s industry-shaking Unsafe at Any Speed.
Headed for Netflix after a Sundance premiere, Downfall — not to be confused with the 2004 German film that launched a million Hitler memes — doesn’t get much deeper than the most superficial of headlines about the pair of Boeing MAX 737 crashes in 2018 and 2019 that left 346 people dead. Though Downfall does some things extremely well, in the balance it’s not very good cinematic journalism and it’s only persuasive to a very limited extent — one that is almost impossible to dispute but doesn’t really take a vital conversation anywhere interesting.
Downfall: The Case Against Boeing
Airdate: Friday, February 18 (Netflix)
Director: Rory Kennedy1 hour 29 minutes
As a refresher, in October of 2018, Lion Air Flight 610 crashed soon after taking off from Jakarta, killing all 189 passengers. The plane was a new Boeing MAX 737 and Boeing immediately attempted to deflect blame onto the local flight crew. In March of 2019, though, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed as it was leaving Addis Ababa, killing 157 people. This was another Boeing MAX 737 and, eventually, the aircraft was grounded worldwide.
Both crashes were found to be caused by a malfunction to the same flight system — the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS — which had been added to the updated 737 without actually notifying airlines or training pilots.
How did this happen? Why did it happen? And what could have been done to prevent these tragedies? That’s the meat of Kennedy’s film and it was the meat of a completed 18-month congressional investigation led by Peter DeFazio, chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
DeFazio appears in Downfall and he summarizes the findings thusly: “The safety culture at Boeing fell apart. It was corrupted from the top down by pressure from Wall Street. Plain and simple.”
Honestly, you don’t need to watch the documentary now. That’s a damning enough statement. As Kennedy sketches it out, in 1997, Boeing merged with McDonnell Douglas. From that point, a company that had previously operated as something of a vast family headquartered in Seattle transformed into another moneymaking enterprise willing to cut corners in the name of profits.
It’s a reasonable and doubtlessly correct point, but it’s a reductive point. Countless small companies that once operated like families get purchased by bigger corporations and become machines driven by the bottom line and no doubt leave their employees feeling devalued and dehumanized, but do so without killing hundreds of people in the process. Kennedy’s “post hoc ergo propter hoc” argument is bad rhetoric and makes it almost impossible for Downfall to have a meaningful takeaway, since the guilty party here is “Capitalism” — again, not an unreasonable point — and an 89-minute documentary isn’t going to take down “Capitalism.”
Nobody with any current executive or engineering ties to Boeing is featured in Downfall, nor is anybody who had any tangible connections to the development or construction of the MAX 737, to the decisions not to train pilots on the MCAS system or… anything. The documentary wants to kick Boeing in its bottom-line groin, but there’s nothing new enough here to impact the price of Boeing stock.
Ultimately, Kennedy’s film does such a superficial job of placing blame that Boeing issued only a pair of minimal statements disagreeing with the most minor of characterizations. The tragedies surrounding the MAX 737 were specific — both the failures and the coverup — but Kennedy doesn’t have sourcing to get to the bottom of anything specific. Talking to a couple of Boeing engineers who complain that McDonnell Douglas came in and the culture changed is an indictment of the culture. But there are so many missing and unconnected dots from there to a failing MCAS system, and then Boeing’s desperate efforts to deflect, that our villains are exclusively nebulous institutions. Nobody has taken direct responsibility and no direct responsibility is assigned here.
The frustration at the film’s vagueness is only amplified by how sometimes Downfall does very well with specifics. Using pilots and aviation experts — Sully! — Downfall illustrates and explains what the MCAS system was and what went wrong on these two flights in a way that, for two hours, I was actually convinced that I understood. With computer reenactments and examples as amusingly primitive as talking heads basically going “Vroom vroom!” with tiny airplane models, Downfall conveys a real sense of at least rudimentary aviation mechanics. This is actually a real achievement, but I don’t think it’s the documentary’s primary intention.
General anger is closer to the intention, and with several still-grieving family members on-hand, that’s a sentiment that the documentary dredges up. But again… to what end?
There’s no call to action at the end of Downfall because there’s no specific fix that the documentary has been steering us toward, no specific change that would make any difference. There’s no reason the lack of regulation that led to these tragedies at Boeing couldn’t happen just as easily at AirBus — or if there is, Downfall isn’t interested in explaining why.
Unsafe at Any Speed changed the auto industry because of the specificity of its research and its shaming and its advocacy. Downfall maybe arrives at a realization of, “Regulate more and better.” It’s barely a start, but if you needed convincing, I guess this is a documentary for you.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Director: Rory Kennedy
Writers: Mark Bailey & Keven McAlester
Producers: Rory Kennedy, Mark Bailey, Keven McAlester, Amanda Rohlke, Justin Wilkes
Executive producers: Brian Grazer, Ron Howard
Editor: Don Kleszy
Composer: Gary Lionelli
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