I love scrupulously-put-together documentaries that deal with criminal or social justice and Downfall: The Case Against Boeing is one of these important documentaries. It shows the rise and fall of the engineering company Boeing in the context of two airplane disasters that happened in October 2018 (Lion Air Flight) and March 2019 (Ethiopian Airlines Flight) and involved the same aircraft manufactured by Boeing – 737 MAX. The company’s culture of never hearing bad news and hiding important documents, a new airplane system MCAS and Boeing’s concealment of it from the pilots to save money all led to the total loss of 346 human lives. Starting from the foundation of the company and ending with the lessons drawn from the two disasters and the grounding of the Boeing fleet, Downfall painstakingly shows every development in this tragic story, demonstrating the full extent of the American corporate greed. Treating everything as “mere business” is very dangerous, especially when human safety is concerned and human lives are potentially at stake.
The story starts with the origin of the Boeing Company in Seattle, Washington in 1916. This company had always prided itself on putting safety first, designing aircrafts of supreme quality and maximum security. It was the pride of America, and at least until Boeing’s merger with McDonnell Douglas in 1996, we get the sense that this company valued its engineers and safety experts above any business managers, encouraging them to voice their safety concerns at every point of an aircraft development. The documentary paints the merger with McDonnell Douglas as the turning point in the company’s culture when it started to fire its engineers and safety control officers and bypass strict safety procedures to save money and stay competitive with the rise of its European competitor Airbus. Boeing installed the complex MCAS system on its Boeings 737 to mitigate the dangers of having new energy-efficient engines, but did not make their pilots aware of it, and moreover, desiring to save money and time at all costs, stated that this system did not require a training simulation for pilots…only that it required just that…When the Lion Air Flight pilots encountered the malfunction of the MCAS system on their airplane just minutes after take-off on 29 October 2018, they did not know what they were dealing with and the system purposely started to tilt the aircraft nose down. So, what was the price of not telling the pilots about the MCAS system on their airplane? “Only” 189 innocent people’s lives.
After the first disaster and knowing that the MCAS system was probably responsible for it, the Boeing Company still did not ground 737 MAX and then the second disaster happened in March 2019. This time, the Ethiopian Airlines Flight pilots were aware of the MCAS system and switched it off when it started to malfunction minutes after take-off. They did what Boeing required them to do, only they did not know that they had to do it in the first 10 seconds! or they would never have a chance to recover their aircraft in time. They never did. Boeing was again responsible for the death of many people and this time 157 human lives. And, then, what the company did afterwards? Again, withheld vital information and internal communication and blamed the “foreign” pilots.
The admirable aspect of Downfall is that the documentary puts a human face on the two disasters. The two catastrophes were not some “distant” and “collective” events or just topics of furious Wikipedia articles, the disasters were real people losing their lives, people that were someone’s much loved and cherished fathers, mothers, children and relatives. The victims were people with beating hearts, desires, and plans and hopes for future life. Thus, we hear about Captain Bhavye Suneja, pilot of the Lion Air Flight 610, from his grieving wife Garima Sethi, and about Joseph Waithaka, one of the passengers on the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, from his daughter Zipporah Kuria.
Downfall is a well-made, thorough documentary about two of the most unbelievable and tragic air disasters in our human history, exposing the greed of a billion-dollar corporation whose competitive drive in a Wall Street game to make money meant that many innocent people lost their lives.