Local filmmaker Rory Kennedy’s newest documentary premiered at Sundance Film Festival
In October 2018, a Boeing 737 MAX jet owned by Lion Air crashed into the sea minutes after takeoff from Jakarta, killing all 189 people on board. Four months later, another 737 MAX, operated by Ethiopian Airlines, crashed minutes after takeoff from Addis Ababa, killing all 157 people on board. Investigators later found that malfunctioning automatic flight controls caused the planes to nosedive, and recent changes to the system had been deliberately deleted from pilot training manuals.
“Downfall: The Case against Boeing,” the new documentary directed by Malibu local Rory Kennedy, is a blistering investigation into how these horrific crashes never would have happened if the company hadn’t prioritized profit over safety in the process of bringing the new Boeing 737 MAX to market.
In a phone interview, Kennedy’s passion for this project comes across front and center. “This documentary was my idea,” she confirmed. “I followed this story after the first crash, and then after the second crash, I thought, ‘this just isn’t something that happens in modern aviation.’ I thought it was worth looking into and investigating. What did Boeing know, and when did they know it?”
The film’s story is told by people with firsthand knowledge of the events—family members, journalists, members of Congress, aviation experts, and Boeing whistleblowers. Boeing management declined to be interviewed but provided some responses in writing, Kennedy explained. Most of the film was shot during the pandemic, and many of the interviews were conducted remotely.
The investigation offers damning evidence of lies, negligence, and cover-ups by Boeing. In early reviews that came out a day after “Downfall” premiered at the online-only Sundance Film Festival last Friday, Jan. 21, one reviewer wrote, “This is a must-see documentary which is conventional to a fault, but about as solid an indictment of corporate greed as could be wished for…a highly uncomfortable mirror on modern society’s mores.”
The trouble all seemed to start when, after 30 years of safely and successfully manufacturing commercial airplanes sold around the world, Boeing merged with McDonnell-Douglas in 1996. The previous corporate culture of dogged commitment to safety began to change following that merger.
Airbus, a European aircraft manufacturer, competes with Boeing for aircraft contracts. Boeing felt pressured to design a new plane quickly, so their new 737 MAX was simply a retrofit 1967 plane model with more efficient engines, even though some aerodynamic issues remained.
In August 2011, Boeing announced the creation of the 737 MAX and also introduced a flight control software dubbed MCAS that would automatically push the plane’s nose down in certain circumstances. That system was problematic, and Boeing knew it.
“As far back as 2013, there was evidence that Boeing was trying to hide the MCAS system from pilots, airlines, and the FAA,” Kennedy said, “and not alert them to the fact that it was on the plane.“ The reason, which came out later, is that the MCAS system would have required additional worldwide pilot training at great expense to the company.
“They made a concerted effort, it seems, to save money,” Kennedy commented.
In 2016, an internal memo from Boeing documented the MCAS system problem: if the plane stalled, and if a problematic sensor was broken, and the pilot didn’t react within four to 10 seconds to turn off several systems, the plane would crash. They got the FAA to delete MCAS from the 737 MAX training manual. The plane was certified for commercial flight, and in 2018, Boeing reported $101 billion in revenue.
Then the crashes happened within five months of each other. After the first crash, Boeing didn’t raise any red flags or call for additional simulator training, Kennedy related. Instead, they tried to shift blame to the pilot and insisted the planes were safe to fly. And the FAA listened to them—until the second crash.
But also between crashes, “there was a report released saying these planes were likely to crash at least 15 times in their lifetime,” Kennedy continued. “There’s a real sense Boeing valued profit over human life.”
After the second crash, all 737 MAX planes were grounded for 20 months, and a Congressional investigation determined Boeing was at fault, along with lax FAA oversight.
When asked if the 737 MAX should’ve been allowed to fly again, Kennedy said, “I wouldn’t get on a 737 MAX right now. I have ongoing concerns about the plane. There are a number of problems that are still outstanding that they have not addressed. Some items got grandfathered in. It’s questionable how much internal work Boeing has done to prioritize safety.”
Rory Kennedy is an Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker with over 30 highly acclaimed films to her credit, including “Last Days in Vietnam,” “Ethel,” and “Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton.”