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Downfall: The Case Against Boeing Will Make You Never Want to Fly Again

Rory Kennedy probes the 737 MAX crashes and the "culture of concealment" at Boeing in a new Netflix documentary.
  • Boeing debuted the 737 MAX aircraft in 2017. Within two years, two planes had fallen out of the sky. (Photo: Netflix)
    Boeing debuted the 737 MAX aircraft in 2017. Within two years, two planes had fallen out of the sky. (Photo: Netflix)

    In October 2018, Lion Air Flight 610 crashed shortly after taking off in Jakarta, killing all 189 passengers and crew aboard. Questions immediately emerged about the international pilots, their training background, and their overall qualifications, but few blamed the plane itself, a Boeing 737 MAX 8 that had been in service for just two months. The media and industry insiders insisted that Boeing, an American company synonymous with aviation excellence, couldn’t possibly be at fault for the disaster. Five months later, that presumption proved deadly when a second plane — Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 — fell out of the sky outside Addis Ababa just six minutes after takeoff. There were no survivors.

    Three years later, we know that the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes were caused by faulty flight control software aboard the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, resulting in a worldwide grounding of the jet. Boeing seems to have had no problem weathering this controversy (it was fined $2.5 billion in 2021, a year in which it did $76.6 billion in sales), but that may change thanks to Rory Kennedy’s Downfall: The Case Against Boeing, a documentary that serves as a scathing indictment of corporate greed and negligence. Further, Downfall may make you never want to fly again — whether you’re set to travel on a Boeing, an Airbus, or any other brand of aircraft.

    Downfall, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival before arriving this Friday on Netflix, begins with an overview of the Lion Air crash and the defective system that caused it. Immediately following the crash, the media pointed to Indonesia’s “troubling safety record” with flights, while talking heads like former NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker implied that the Indian and Indonesian pilots didn’t know what to do in case of an emergency. “I wouldn’t say it was racist,” says Garima Sethi, the wife of Captain Bhavye Suneja, in one of the film’s most heartrending interviews. “But I clearly remember a point when they spoke about my husband’s qualifications.”

    Though xenophobia appears to have played a role in the initial response to the crash, Kennedy stops short of interrogating Sethi’s point, as the root cause soon emerges: a design flaw in the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, known as MCAS, on the 737 MAX planes. As a host of experts explain (with the help of toy planes, graphs showing irregular flight patterns, and dramatic reenactments), the MCAS pushes the nose of the plane down if a sensor identifies that the angle-of-attack is too high. In the case of the Lion Air crash, this sensor was broken, erroneously activating MCAS, which pushed the nose of the plane down so intensely that the pilots were unable to recover. It’s difficult to put this aviation jargon into layman’s terms, but Downfall does a good job describing the bug in Boeing’s system, and the lengths to which the company went to cover it up.

    Downfall alleges that Boeing chose not to educate pilots about the MCAS system because it was worried about “overloading crews with information” about new features on the MAX jets. The company promised to implement a software fix ASAP (and the FAA took this promise at face-value), but it didn’t move swiftly enough, and on March 10, 2019, MCAS activated aboard Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, leading to a second crash that killed all 157 people aboard. In the face of immense global pressure, the FAA finally grounded the aircraft, and Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, started an investigation into Boeing. Almost all of the revelations in Downfall come from this Congressional investigation, but Kennedy makes this already-released information fresh by combining it with emotional testimony from families of the crash victims and a fascinating foray into Boeing’s history.

    About one-third of the way into the film, Kennedy rewinds to track Boeing’s rise in the aviation industry, its 1997 merger with McDonnell Douglas Corporation, the company’s more recent competition with Airbus, and the development of the 737 MAX aircraft. As former employees tell it, Boeing became the pride and joy of aviation by establishing a “family” culture in the workplace, but after the merger, generating profits and meeting shareholder demands became executives’ top priority, and quality began to slip. In interviews that will make uneasy fliers even more anxious, engineers and plant managers claim they were told to cut corners during production and had their pay docked for putting their concerns in writing (Boeing denies some of these allegations in a brief statement at the end of the film).

    Quality further declined as Airbus, a European competitor, gained market share, and in order to better compete, Boeing announced the launch of the 737 MAX, an updated take on the company’s workhorse jet. Kennedy’s sources explain that as a “derivative,” the MAX required little approval from the FAA, and airlines were encouraged not to offer additional training to pilots that were already comfortable flying existing 737s. As a result, the Lion Air pilots didn’t even know that MCAS was present on their aircraft, and they certainly wouldn’t have known how to disable it in the 10-second window they had to avoid “catastrophic” failure. “Pilots need to be trained on MCAS to potentially avoid killing people, and Boeing knew this was the case,” explains Rick Ludtke, an engineer at Boeing from 1996-2017. “And yet pilot training never happened.”

    Like so much of the testimony included in the documentary, Ludtke’s statement effectively inflames the viewer, but if there’s one knock on Downfall, it’s that it doesn’t give us anywhere to direct that anger. Kennedy’s film ends with an update about the 737 MAX — the FAA cleared it to resume service in November 2020 — and a reminder that viewers should be “skeptical” of Boeing, but it’s hardly the grand call to action that characterizes so many successful docs. Skepicism doesn’t help families who lost loved ones in the 737 MAX crashes, nor does it prevent this kind of negligence from occurring elsewhere within the aviation industry.

    In this sense, Downfall doesn’t entirely stick the landing, but the 85 minutes that precede these final moments make it more than a worthwhile watch. For viewers who only know about the actual 737 MAX crashes, and not the “culture of concealment” that caused them, Kennedy’s film is a captivating — and often stomach-churning — primer.

    Downfall: The Case Against Boeing premieres Friday, February 18 on Netflix.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the TV Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: Downfall: The Case Against Boeing , Rory Kennedy, Boeing, Documentaries