Downfall: The Case Against Boeing is one of Netflix's newest unique documentary offerings.
Drawing together industry experts, investigative journalists, pilots, American congressmen, and relatives of the victims of two Boeing 737 MAX crashes, Downfall: The Case Against Boeing is a hard-hitting indictment of the goings-on behind closed doors at Boeing.
The documentary blends technical information on the very serious technical problems with the aircraft at launch with heart-rending stories of the families fighting for justice for their loved ones. It also includes historic news clips, interviews with family and experts, and key journalists covering the story.
The documentary jumps back and forth through time when reviewing key points, which is well done and provides critical historical background to points being made. However, its lack of representatives from Boeing to answer for accusations aimed against them is noticeable by its absence. Since there are always two sides to a story, it would have been nice to hear what they had to say.
But, this is a documentary, not a court of law. As a piece of entertainment, it serves its purpose.
If you have an hour and a half to spare, it really is worth your time watching "Downfall: The Case Against Boeing".
That's the brief overview, but if you are after a little more before committing to watching it, here's a more comprehensive overview.
What is "Downfall: The Case Against Boeing" about?
The documentary follows the disparate stories of investigative journalists like the Wall Street Journal reporter Andy Pasztor who set out to discover why so many Boeing 737 MAXs appeared to be falling out of the sky.
After a brief introduction into Boeing's history, notably its reputation for safety and quality, the documentary starts to get into the long grass about the 737 MAX.
After all, as the documentary explains, for a long time pilots would half-jokingly say that "if it ain't Boeing, I ain't going".
So, when the retooled Boeing 737, the 737 MAX was first announced in 2016, along with promises that any changes to the plane would not require expensive pilot simulation training, it was almost taken for granted that the aircraft would be as good, if not better, than existing Boeing offerings.
But then, everything changed with Lion Air Flight 610 from Jakarta. Mere minutes after takeoff, the aircraft spectacularly plummeted from the sky into the Java Sea. All 189 souls on board perished and the crash is recreated in CGI for the viewers to observe.
So, what happened?
As the documentary explains, initial explanations ranged from pilot error, poor training, even blaming Lion's own internal safety procedures for the crash. After all, Lion Air did not have a flawless safety history.
After some heart-rending interviews with the crash victim families, The documentary then goes on to explain that the "black boxes" of the aircraft were finally recovered. There was something very wrong with the aircraft's safety systems.
Something the pilots couldn't understand or correct.
In the weeks and months following the crash, the documentary shows some clips and articles detailing how Boeing argued the problem lay with the pilots and commercial operators and were confident the Boeing 737 MAX was safe to fly.
However, the data from the "black boxes" revealed an apparent skeleton in the closet, the Boeing 737 MAX's Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) - specifically its angle of attack sensor.
As the documentary then explains, warnings from quality controllers were ignored during the redesign of the 737 MAX, and decisions were taken to prioritize profits over people. Instead of acknowledging this, Boeing doubled down that the pilots were at fault.
Pilots of the Boeing 737 MAX were never given full training to fly it
At this point, the documentary reveals evidence and testimonials that pilots were never actually told about "MCAS", nor were they trained on it. In fact, one of the main selling points for the 737 MAX was that almost no additional pilots training was needed.
This was, according to Boeing, to prevent pilots from "being overwhelmed" with the information they didn't readily need to fly the plane. Promises were made to pilot's unions it was a software problem and it would have a fix in a few months.
The issue, for the moment, seemed to be resolved. That was, of course, until March of 2019.
The documentary then provides another overview of the March 10, 2019, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 737 MAX crash, which took place six minutes after the plane took off from Addis Adaba. Unlike the previous crash, this one occurred over land, and very little was left of the wreckage except for a huge crater and scattered bits and pieces.
More interviews later, it is shown that the crash was eerily similar to the Jakarta one, and occurred less than 5 months later. Two crashes of the same plane this close together were also unprecedented in aviation history. Something was seriously wrong with these planes and most countries grounded them.
Why was the Boeing 737 MAX grounded?
An overview of the 737 MAX is provided including an analysis of the "black box" data and safety features - primarily the MCAS.
For the Ethiopian crash, these were found to be in their runway trim position when the plane crashed. This was, in the eyes of those interviewed, a smoking gun. The MCAS was clearly at fault.
What follows is a brief overview of the design features of the 737 MAX and the reason for its creation and the need for the MCAS. What's more, the MCAS system, namely its known problems, was hidden from authorities.
Boeing, it seemed, had developed a culture of concealment, and the evidence of documents finally released revealed this clearly.
They even admitted that pilot training on MCAS was critical. But, this would have thrown off one of their main selling points of the aircraft - training not needed!
At this point in the documentary, U.S. Representative Peter DeFazio enters the fray. He explains how he started an official congressional investigation, with the explicit objective of answering the question of whether "Boeing put an unsafe aircraft into the air".
Despite continuing to blame pilot error, key documents show that Boeing the 737 MAX wasn't entirely safe. This was a bombshell for the hearing, and also for Boeing's reputation - something that had been brewing for many years since Boeing's senior management changed in the 1990s.
Boeing makes the ultimate sacrifice for profit - their reputation
Boeing, instead of designing a new aircraft, decided to improve their existing planes, namely the 737. The idea was to put more fuel-efficient engines on it in an attempt to rapidly deal with the new threat.
However, the 737 was well over 40 years old at this point. While small changes to her design had been made, ultimately this was an old plane. However, there was some logic to it - pilots were already familiar with the aircraft.
They even made it a sales pitch that pilots would not require training! Training costs, therefore, could be heavily reduced, which would appeal to airlines.
But, as it turned out, this would require what was one an almost sacrilegious compromise for Boeing - they would need to cut corners. As the documentary explains, Boeing's laser focus on safety was sacrificed.
This turned out to be a false economy.
A series of interviews with former Boeing employees then explains how quality control slipped or was outright ignored. Quality managers were actively treated with hostility if issues were flagged and reported.
In many cases, "debris", tools, and other objects were often found left on the unfinished airframes of new 737 MAXs during its construction phase. These included metal shavings, pieces of wire, or even, most scarily, an entire ladder left near the rear stabilizer. These items can cause shorts as the aircraft are "fly by wire".
This claim, it should be pointed out, has been officially and aggressively refuted by Boeing. In their view, these accusations are merely attacks by angry ex-employees.
It is then explained how Boeing apparently attempted to scupper the official U.S. hearing into the crashes by withholding or heavily redacting key information. However, some key documents were found, including, unbelievably, a TARAM report from the FAA predicting that one plane could be lost every two years if faults found were not fixed following the Jakarta crash. Boeing said they had a software fix in the works that would correct the issue within 6 months.
This, and other documents and testimonies, were enough for the hearing to ground all Boeing 737 MAXs for 20 months. Boeing was also fined, and its CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, officially resigned, albeit with a $62 million payout.
During this time, the MCAS system was completely redesigned, and the Boeing 737 MAX has since been given the official green light to fly once again.
But, Boeing's reputation has seriously been damaged by this whole affair.
And that's a wrap. So, what's our final verdict?
"Downfall: The Case Against Boeing" is certainly a very one-sided take on the events of the last few years for Boeing and the 737 MAX, but it does provide enough damning evidence to support its main arguments.
For anyone who has been following the story of Boeing's 737 MAX, this is definitely worth a watch, but don't expect to learn anything new that you probably already know. For anyone not familiar with the story, this documentary acts as a somewhat scary introduction to the apparent dodgy behind-the-scenes dealing of Boeing.