Talk to Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy (“Last Days in Vietnam”) and you see a throughline to her socially-conscious family. The last of Ethel and Robert F. Kennedy’s eleven children, Rory was born seven months after her father’s assassination. The Kennedys are a special breed, our American royal family in many ways, raised in wealth and privilege, close to power, but with a great civic pride and mission.
Kennedy looked closely at her family when she made HBO’s Oscar-shortlisted “Ethel,” dug into the world of chess in HBO’s “Bobby Fischer Against the World,” and won a Primetime Emmy for “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib.” Her latest film, “Downfall: The Case Against Boeing,” came out of Kennedy’s primal fear of flying. That was one reason why she closely tracked the unfolding news story of two back-to-back airplane crashes that took the lives of a total 346 passengers. On October 29, 2018, the sky was clear at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport as Lion Air Flight 610 took off and then, 13 minutes later, fell from the sky. Pilot error was the suspected cause — until five months later when another brand-new Boeing 737 MAX, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, met the same fate.
Kennedy wanted to find out what happened. She pitched the project to Netflix; “Downfall: The Case Against Boeing” premiered at Sundance 2022 to upbeat reviews and is now available to stream. I interviewed Kennedy on Zoom; our conversation is lightly edited for clarity.
Anne Thompson: You have your pick of non-fiction projects. Why chase this one?
Rory Kennedy: This was a project that I wanted to make. I was following the story of the first plane crash and the tragedy there. And when the second plane crashed, the same aircraft within five months of each other in eerily similar circumstances, it was striking to me. I wanted to understand what happened and who knew what when. In part, I didn’t want it to happen again. I was concerned that there was more going on than we were hearing in initial coverage, which was focused on pilot error. This film is a story that rises above the facts of what happened. There are lessons to be learned not just about airline safety, but the balance of corporate interest and the public interest.
Your film raises questions about other similar examples we don’t know about.
Rory Kennedy: You really see how corporations get pulled into the focus on profits above everything else, including the public interest. It’s a story we can all relate to, because pretty much all of us fly. We are all invested in the protective elements working. When you walk down that jetway you think: the airline is invested in protecting me, the manufacturer is, the regulators, the FAA is going to do their job, Congress is going to make sure this is working properly. And we all trust that. None of that happened in this circumstance. It’s important for all of us to question these things, to not assume or take it for granted.
Were you on a mission to reach people with an accessible story?
Rory Kennedy: It was a tricky film to make and a hard story to tell, in part because of the technical aspects that people need to understand in order to fully comprehend the decisions that Boeing made along the way that were ultimately responsible for these airplane crashes. We tell the story as it played itself out in the first act: the information that we’re getting on the surface, what’s going on with the first airplane crash and the second crash. We then go back and tell the history of Boeing, which is deserving of this extraordinary company that’s done amazing things, and focused on excellence and quality for so many decades. They got us out of the Depression, to the Moon, and into international travel. And in the third act, once you know the context of what was happening, we go back and find out what Boeing knew when during the course of those events. When they sent the second plane up in the air, they already had the report that this airplane was likely to crash 15 times over course of its lifetime.
Boeing was willing to risk people dying. They were banking that they could make the fixes before a second crash took place.
Rory Kennedy: That’s exactly right. You had to understand the crashes and what Boeing was saying, go back and show what they actually knew back in 2016. If pilots didn’t respond within 10 seconds, these planes couldn’t recover. As far back as 2013 they were hiding the existence of the MCAS [software] system to the regulators. And then you understand the implications, and you’re also connecting with Michael Stumo whose daughter was on the second plane: “You let me put my daughter on this plane while knowing all of this?”
One of the issues is the plane is retrofitted, built wrong. The correction should have been to rebuild the engine. It was built during a time when the company had a top-down management style based on concealment, not receptive to concerns about safety. The interactive nature of the cockpit of the plane is not up to current day standards. The alert systems and how they communicate with pilots are not on par with other planes built today. Another ongoing concern, when there are problems and the pilots have 10 seconds to respond, is to keep in mind the cacophony of alerts coming at them: the stick shaker is shaking and making loud clacker sounds along with the master alarm and the altitude disagree and speed disagree. They have to orient themselves in all of that and figure out the exact right thing to do. Many of those alerts are still happening.
Explain how the pilots were flying blind into certain danger.
Rory Kennedy: The horror of it is that Boeing didn’t want to tell the pilots about the MCAS system or make the FAA aware of it. If they were aware of it then it would require pilot training, which costs money, and takes them off flying planes. The costs associated with that was about $1 million a plane. Every decision goes back to saving money and so it’s an unfortunate but sad tragic story. It’s sad we have to learn this lesson with 346 people dead. These people who died were amazing. It was a loss for all of us, tragic.
You used the the bereaved parents to good effect. How did you pick your cast of characters?
Rory Kennedy: I wanted the film to come from the perspective of people who were on the front lines of this story. It was a combination of the people who worked at Boeing, reporters who were chasing down the story, like Andy Pastor, who was responsible for the revelatory moments, and Peter DeFazio, the peerless leader of the Transportation Infrastructure Committee, who led the biggest investigation in that committee’s history to get to the bottom of what happened. And Michael Stumo, whose daughter died in the second crash, evolved from victim to advocate. So many of these families organized together to have a voice and stood up to Boeing and continue to do so today.
Boeing had to pay a $2.5 billion penalty in the year they earned $76 billion in sales.
Rory Kennedy: The other of the many tragedies and unfairnesses of this story is that none of the Boeing management have been held responsible for 346 deaths. [Dennis A.] Muilenburg, who ran the company at the time, left with $62 million they gave him. A lot of these families continue to have concerns about the safety of the 737 MAX being up in the air now. DeFazio says it was a slap on the wrist. From the perspective of the families and other people who follow the story, none of the Boeing management faced prison time. Many feel they got away with murder.
The 737 MAX was grounded worldwide between March 2019 and November 2020; the retrofitted version is back in the sky, with new training for pilots. Is it safe?
Rory Kennedy: I wouldn’t get on a 737 MAX today; other people would. Personally I wouldn’t due to ongoing concerns about its safety.
Why did you want this film to show on Netflix?
Rory Kennedy: It was a good fit for Netflix: it’s an international story, obviously Boeing is an American company but two crashes, one was in Africa, one in Asia. People all over the world are on these airplanes. How the U.S. reacted to the airplanes, the leadership and lack thereof, is of great interest to people around the world. The United States is still a beacon of hope and aspiration. It helps all of us to have a correction, to hold all of our institutions and systems accountable, to make sure we are focusing on the communal interest — not just the individual and financial.