Imagine that you manage a chain coffee shop in, say, Kansas City. You’ve been working there for twelve years and have rolled with the changes—hell, you even got used to pumpkin spice. A few years ago, corporate started sending you a different kind of simple syrup, that silent sweetener used in drinks. One day, a customer comes back saying she’d gotten violently sick after buying some sweetened iced tea from your shop. She got three pumps of sweetener, rather than the standard single pump, at her request. You contact corporate and they say, well, she asked for it, so we’re legally in the clear. You tell your line workers to use a different sweetener, and put all of this in an email sent to the entire staff. You explain that the syrup isn’t okay, and is possibly even dangerous to customers. You tell them you’re happy to reimburse the cost of any substitutes they feel like bringing in. Anything will do, really. Corporate hears about this and fires you.
DOWNFALL: THE CASE AGAINST BOEING ★★★1/2 (3.5/4 stars)
The next day, your branch caters a big corporate birthday party. Three hundred and forty six people, many of them children, die because of the syrup. Corporate blames you and misrepresents your email, even though you don’t work there anymore. The CEO faces no criminal charges and walks away with a $60 million severance package. He says nothing to the victims’ families and, two years later, starts a starts a new publicly-traded business through a shell company without difficulty. You can’t get a job because your name is now synonymous with the “Three Pump Party.”
That did happen but it wasn’t a coffee chain—it was Boeing (BA) and the CEO was Dennis Muilenberg. Two years after Lion Air Flight 610 (a Boeing 737 Max) and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 (same) crashed, Muilenburg emerged as the new head of a holding company in the aerospace and defense industry. Boeing has paid steep fines and the company’s fortunes have been decreasing since 2019. On Monday, March 21, a Boeing 737, not a Max, crashed in Guangxi, China. The terrifying fifteen second surveillance video of that plane plummeting straight down may ultimately have more effect on Boeing’s future than any documentary film. Maybe the company will fold and its competitor, Airbus, will take possession of the market. The slavish pursuit of stock performance that drove Boeing after it merged with McDonnell-Douglas in 1997 will turn out to have been its undoing.
But is any of that justice? Boeing escaped any criminal charges by cutting a deal with the final days of the Trump DOJ. The people who worked for Boeing, who made the planes, and the people who paid to fly on them, will get nothing out of these deals. The people at the top took their bonuses and will move on to other companies. It’s not just that it seems to be legal to murder people for profit—there’s also no particular social stigma in being a murderer if you sit a few floors up from the workers.
Rory Kennedy’s Downfall: The Case Against Boeing is a swift and beautifully clear documentary about many things, chief among them the cost of profit above all. Her use of CGI recreations is especially helpful in understanding the savage intervention of something called MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System). The 737 Max was a rehauled version of an older plane with bigger engines strapped on to it, rushed to market to compete with a new Airbus model. The MCAS was supposed to address the potential stall created by these heavier engines, but Boeing didn’t want to pay to train their pilots in that software. (You read that right.) The MCAS was controlled by one angle-of-attack sensor, rather than two or more. “The MCAS system is safety critical,” Congressman Peter DeFazio says in Downfall. “And on an airplane, you never ever have a safety-critical system that has a single point of failure.” Once activated, the MCAS pushed the nose of the plane down every ten seconds. Without knowing what was causing this, even the most seasoned pilot wouldn’t be able to save the day. Boeing had essentially built a randomly activated suicide switch into the 737 Max, a fact they knew, discussed, and actively suppressed. It boggles the mind, and Kennedy has presented documentation for all of it.
Boeing knew in 2016 that pilots only had 4 to 10 seconds to respond to the MCAS system before the results would be “catastrophic.” After the Lion Air Flight 610 crash in October of 2018, the FAA found this out, and that more 737 Max crashes were likely over the course of the fleet’s lifetime. The planes were not grounded, though, and the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed a few months later. Boeing, knowing everything they knew, still blamed the pilots in both cases and tried with great zeal to quiet the victims’ families and force them into legal agreements. The deal Boeing struck in the last days of the Trump administration left them paying under $300 million in fines (although it was reported widely as $2.5 billion) and “threw a few pilots under the bus,” as victim’s father Michael Stumo described it on Democracy Now. His daughter, Samya Rose Stumo, 24, died in the Ethiopian Airlines crash.
“Dennis Muilenburg should be defending himself in criminal court right now as the lead conspirator in corporate homicide in two plane crashes,” Stumo told The New Republic. Kennedy relies on Stumo and other relatives of the victims, as well as a few pilots and Andy Pasztor, the Wall Street Journal reporter who covered the aerospace beat for decades. Once a standard bearer for safety and quality, Boeing changed drastically after their 1997 merger with the failing military aircraft supplier McDonnell Douglas. Boeing moved their headquarters from Seattle to Chicago and nothing was ever the same.
Pasztor was eventually able to get a “very senior Boeing executive” to say, on the record, that, “we never informed the pilots about MCAS. We never explained it to them. We never trained them on it, because we didn’t want to overwhelm them with information.” At first, the fact of this deception is what is so shocking, but eventually it’s the brazen quality of the Boeing executives. Kennedy’s title may be prophetic, and Boeing may fall. The people responsible, openly and knowingly responsible, may not fly again but they are walking away, unscathed.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.