There’s no way to watch Rory Kennedy‘s Downfall: The Case Against Boeing (which premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival) and not come away absolutely enraged. It’s not just that Boeing knew it had a problem before the first of two 737 Maxs crashed. And its not just they knew they had a problem after the second plane crashed. Its that they knew, over this design’s lifetime, a projected 15 would crash, yet they still sent them up every day. Then, instead of taking responsibility, decided instead to blame the pilots. (It’s so bad that there’s a scene of Ted Cruz, of all people, dressing down the then CEO of Boeing and I found myself actively rooting for Ted Cruz, a man I do not like.)
In a nutshell, the problem was a new system introduced by Boeing for the 737 Max called the MCAS (pronounced “em-cass”). Because the 737 Max has bigger engines for better fuel efficiency, they had to be placed on a different spot on the wings. The MCAS exists to automatically course correct the plane due to errors that might come out of the engines being in a different location. But, when new systems are introduced, that means new pilot training, which means money is lost, which means airlines might not buy these planes. So instead of training pilots on this new system, Boeing decided to not even mention it exists.
So when the system went haywire, the pilots on the first plane literally did not know why the computer on the plane was literally forcing it into the ocean. The pilots on the second crash by this point did know, but they did everything right and it still didn’t matter. The computer on the plane was literally trying to ram the plane into the ground. And as the film shows us, Boeing knew all of this and decided, as a business decision, to still send these planes in the air.
Ahead, Kennedy talks about this eye-opening film that, again, will enrage you.
This film is infuriating.
It was so infuriating I found myself rooting for Ted Cruz. And I don’t like Ted Cruz.
Ted Cruz is in the film. We have Trump in the film. I think the truth is that there was really a bipartisan congressional effort to get to the bottom of this story and what happened. And I think when we learn what we learned from the film that Boeing was trying to cover up this MCAS system as far back as 2013. They knew that if pilots didn’t respond within four to 10 seconds, that the result would be catastrophic. Meaning that the plane would crash and everybody on the plane would die. And they still let this plane go up into the air, knowing that. And then the thing where Boeing is told the FAA knows that this plane is projected to crash 15 times in its lifetime.
Right. And they make a business decision that it probably won’t happen again before we fix it. And it did.
Right. So then you’re rolling the dice on people’s lives. And in the first plane, the pilots didn’t even know the MCAS was on the plane and had no idea why the nose of this plane was being pushed down over and over again. And they were fully unequipped on how to deal with that. And, honestly, even with the second plane crash, it was a memo that Boeing sent out. There was no simulator training. There was no mayday situation. “Every pilot needs to understand what’s going on here.” Or better yet, “let’s ground this plane until we know it’s safe.”
I am curious, I mentioned the Ted Cruz scene earlier, I really enjoyed watching him yell at then Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg. Did you use the Cruz footage on purpose because it would get a reaction?
I mean, listen, it’s part of the record. And it was a moment. So it seemed deserving to be included in the film. And I also think that this is not a partisan issue. This is not an issue of Democrats versus Republicans. This is a concern that goes much deeper than that. And in fact, this bill that Congressman DeFazio spearheaded to create changes and substantive changes in the airlines industry and the regulations that happen as a result, very heroic. This was one of the few bills that passed during one of the most divisive terms in our congressional history. And I think it speaks to the fact that this is an issue that transcends Democrats or Republicans and goes much deeper than that. Because listen, the truth is we all fly. Right?
I have three children. I send my children on these airplanes, and they walk down that jet-way. And I want to trust that when they get on that plane, the airlines is looking after them, the manufacturer is looking after them, the regulators are looking after them, Congress is looking after them. And I was really shocked in the making of this film to find that pretty much all of those folks failed us.
Do you remember the movie The Rainmaker? There’s a scene where a letter is read from the company on trial telling a policy holder, “Are you stupid, stupid, stupid?” And Boeing is literally sending emails calling Lion Air stupid. It’s unbelievable.
Well, I need to see that movie again, it’s been a while. I mean, I remember reading that memo where Boeing had called the Lion Air pilots stupid for wanting to have pilot training on on this new airplane. And of course, that plane went on to crash, in large part, because they didn’t have that pilot training. It’s heartbreaking on some fundamental level because, as I say, it’s beyond corporate malfeasance, and it is profit over public interest, but I think about all the people who died on those planes. And that’s where you just think, gosh, are there people who really need to make this much money? Do they really need this much money? I mean, at this cost? Really?
But then Boeing, knowing what they already knew, knowing what the problem was, then started a PR campaign to blame the pilot. And obviously, you have the pilot’s widow in the movie. It is heartbreaking what she had to go through and fight this company.
I mean, can you imagine?
And for them to have known that it was an airplane that was retrofitted to accommodate these new engines that was built very quickly, that skirted around a lot of the safety issues and safety concerns that were voiced, and the slew of decisions, and knowing that this plane had a high chance of crashing, that they blamed the pilots. I mean, can you imagine being the wife of the pilot and her knowing how much this pilot committed his life to the safety of his passengers? And that was his highest priority, and that’s what he lived for. And then it trickles down, and people blame him.
I felt like I kind of had a grasp on what happened. And then you watch this movie, and it’s just like, no, the computer is literally trying to kill everyone on board. You have that line in the movie.
I think it reminds me of Captain Sullenberger’s line in the film, “It was maniacal. It was trying to kill them,” I think is his quote. And that’s the reality of what was happening to these pilots, which is why we really committed some time and energy and resources to doing CGI recreation of the perspective of the pilots and to really get into that cockpit.
Which looks great and is horrifying.
Well, I appreciate you feeling like it worked for you, because it was really important to me in part to respect these pilots and to really help people. Because I read so many of the articles. I would read the articles and say, “Well, what actually happened?” And it was very hard to translate it, because it’s complicated. And so I really wanted to make a film where people could understand it and walk out of the theater, or of whatever screening device that they’re going to watch this on, and be able to explain it. And I felt like getting into that cockpit and helping people understand it from that perspective was a part of that process. But also, I think emotionally, it helps you really understand what these pilots went through. And I wanted to respect that.
Going into making this, what did you think you kind of had a grasp on that still wound up shocking you?
Well, I think what was the most was shocking to me was really having a deeper understanding of what Boeing knew very early on in the process before these planes went up. I think understanding the degree to which Boeing was aware of how vulnerable this plane was, still put it up in the air. And then after the first crash, I mean the prediction was that 15 planes would crash like this in the course of its lifetime. I just don’t understand how somebody knows that, like a human being knows that, and makes the choice to send that plane up into the air. I just don’t understand it. I don’t understand how you can sleep at night with that kind of calculation
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