Unfriendly Skies: How AI, Neoliberalism and the Profit Motive Murdered 346 People

[NOTE: This review contains plot spoilers.]


In the documentary Downfall: The Case Against Boeing, producer/director Rory Kennedy accuses the aircraft manufacturer with the same meticulousness and zeal that her late father, U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, brought to bear when he prosecuted organized crime in the early 1960s. But instead of deploying the Justice Department to crack down on Boeing, with an Émile Zola-like passion and skill, Ms. Kennedy admirably utilizes the motion picture medium to lay bare what can arguably be called “mass murder” committed by the U.S.-based multinational corporation, with the complicity of the federal government.


On Oct. 29, 2018, shortly after Lion Air Flight 610 took off from Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, Jakarta, the 737 MAX airline crashed into the Java Sea, killing all 189 passengers and crew. As Downfall shows, standing on its much-vaunted safety record, despite the fact that according to his wife the pilot was U.S.-trained, Boeing’s then-CEO Dennis Muilenberg blamed “the Indonesian crew,” claiming “this would never happen to an American crew.” But was pilot error the culprit – or capitalist greed?

Boeing’s racial passing of the buck was given the lie only four months later when Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, another 737 MAX aircraft, similarly crashed only six minutes after taking off from Addis Ababa Bole International Airport on March 10, 2019. The plane was, like the doomed Lion Air aircraft, only around four months old. All of the flight’s 157 passengers and crew died.

The fact that two such disasters took place almost back-to-back led people to suspect that the fault for these catastrophes did not lay in the Third World, but right back in the heart of the First World, in the USA, where Boeing designed, manufactured and sold the 737 MAX. Downfall proceeds to interview and cover relatives of the crash victims, journalists (the Wall Street Journal’s former aerospace reporter Andy Pasztor is a recurring onscreen presence), pilots, politicians, government and aviation authorities, Boeing employees and executives, plus others. Ms. Kennedy unravels her story like a whodunit, investigating who is culpable for the deaths of 346 human beings?


To make her eponymous Case Against Boeing, Ms. Kennedy’s 90-minute nonfiction film takes the long view and covers lots of ground. Using archival footage, she traces the rise of Boeing, which was founded 1916 in Seattle and became the so-called “Emerald City’s” “biggest employer” for decades. Onscreen, employees describe the well-paying company as a “family” they felt pride working for. Engineers and quality control personnel state that the firm was “engineering led” and “safety” was a top priority for the enterprise that designed, built and sold military and commercial aircraft and spacecraft.

According to Downfall, all this changed during the mergers and acquisitions mania of the 1990s, when Boeing merged with the aerospace corporation and defense contractor McDonnell Douglas by 1997, and the latter’s CEO, Harry Stonecipher, became the President and Chief Operating Officer of the reconfigured multinational. Under the new regime the most important thing became creating value on Wall Street and “driving the stock price higher,” according to onscreen interviewee John Ostrower, editor-in-chief of The Air Current, which analyzes and reports on the global aerospace and aviation industry. Introduction of the highly competitive, France-based Airbus in 2003 complicated the increasingly complex economic dynamic for Boeing, as did rising fuel costs.

Most significantly for Downfall’s story, the corporation’s heightened emphasis on maximizing profit comes at the expense of and compromises Boeing’s traditional “laser focus on safety.” In what appears to be an original interview for the film, quality manager John Barnett contends that the revamped Boeing “ignored the message and attacked the messenger,” contending that “pay was docked for putting complaints in writing. Boeing didn’t want anything documented.”

Although Boeing executives refused to be interviewed for this documentary, they did eventually answer questions in – ironically – writing, and via titles at the end of Ms. Kennedy’s expose, the company denies Barnett’s assertion. However, a vignette of hidden camera footage shot by Al Jazeera appears to lend support to Barnett’s contention that Boeing started to downplay safety concerns. In the surreptitiously lensed scene inside of what seems to be a Boeing plant, an unidentified blue collar worker who has white hair and a white beard expresses sheer disbelief when told that management ruled there was no time for a basic safety precaution. I mention the stunned man’s white hair and beard because the implication is that he is a longtime employee and the scuttled safety practices in question appear to have previously been routine.


The downplaying of safety measures and aversion to documentation dovetail and come to light after the two 737 MAX crashes from October 2018 to March 2019. As chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Democrat Peter DeFazio, who represented Oregon’s 4th congressional district from 1987 to 2023, investigated Boeing for 18 months and held five hearings, which bereaved relatives of international backgrounds valiantly brought pressure to bear to take place. Onscreen, this co-founder of the Congressional Progressive Caucus expresses frustration with Boeing’s repeated stonewalling regarding turning documents over to his committee.

Why doesn’t the corporation want a written record? As the Beatles sang: “Everybody’s got something to hide except for me and my monkey.” What exactly did Boeing have to hide? Instead of redesigning and reengineering a new aircraft to replace the decades’-old 737 in order to better compete with Airbus, Boeing “tweaks” (as the film puts it) the fleet by modifying it to be more gas efficient – and to avoid undergoing the expense of pilot retraining that a completely new model aircraft would have required by law. In addition to implementing cost cutting at the expense of safety, the aircraft manufacturer added a Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, a flight stabilizing feature.

In essence, MCAS is an AI program that Boeing intended to compensate an excessive nose up angle of the aircraft by adjusting the horizontal stabilizer. However, under certain circumstances such as sensor failure, the Artificial Intelligence apparently could literally commandeer the aircraft, wresting control away from the human pilot. This seems to be what erroneously pointed the planes downwards on its deadly trajectories shortly after takeoff in Indonesia and Ethiopia. It reminds me of the iconic scene of man-versus-machine in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. When a human astronaut returns to the mother ship from outer space, he orders the super-computer to “open the pod bay doors, HAL.” It chillingly responds: “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that,” locking him out of the spaceship.

For a variety of shady reasons, pilots were not properly briefed on the MCAS system by Boeing. On June 19, 2019, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger – the pilot who heroically, adroitly landed his damaged plane safely on the Hudson River in 2009 – testified at a hearing of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, insisting on investigation of the crashes, simulator and other forms of pilot training plus enhanced safety measures. Sully told Congress: “In adding MCAS, Boeing added a computer-controlled feature to a human-controlled airplane but without also adding to it the integrity, reliability and redundancy that a computer-controlled system requires… Boeing designers also gave MCAS too much authority, meaning that they allowed it to autonomously move the horizontal stabilizer to the full nose-down limit.”

In Downfall Sully argues: “The way MCAS pushed the nose down [on the 737 MAX Indonesia and Ethiopia flights] was maniacal. Pilots never understood it was trying to kill them.” Regarding the incredibly brief amount of time properly trained pilots would have to correct the situation, DeFazio comments onscreen: “Basically, in 10 seconds you’re dead.” To paraphrase Ralph Nader, Boeing’s 737 MAX was “unsafe at any height.”


After the first crash Boeing rested on its laurels, trading on its previously earned, pre-merger reputation as a standard bearer of safety, and resisted having its 737 MAXs grounded, insisting that the planes just needed “a software fix,” which the Federal Aviation Agency, under Pres. Trump’s Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao (Sen. Mitch McConnell’s wife), accepted. Boeing stood to lose a fortune if what one of its executives calls onscreen the top selling plane in the company’s history was deep sixed. FAA connivance, which is part of the whole neoliberal agenda of limiting and eliminating regulations, is exposed and excoriated in Downfall. In any case, after the second crash, on March 13, 2019, even the notoriously anti-regulatory Pres. Trump grounds the airline (although not stated in the film, the U.S. is almost the last nation to do so).

The doc follows the fallout of the crashes and Boeing’s legal wranglings to their conclusion.

Instead of serving time behind bars, the cashiered Muilenberg lands safely with a $60 million golden parachute, and not a single Boeing executive does prison time for the deaths of 346 humans. Instead, Boeing pays a $2.5 billion fine; although Downfall doesn’t disclose this, it would be interesting to know how this sanction compares to the amount of money and profit it made from the faulty 747 MAX doomsday machines? Does the maxim “crime doesn’t pay” hold true here? Inquiring minds would like to know.


Nor does Rory Kennedy’s film ever mention that some leading Democrats in the House and Senate own a substantial number of shares of Boeing stock, including Rep. Ro Khanna and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who, according to the summer 2023 issue of Jacobin, owns $650,000 in Boeing stock. Of course, as the niece of JFK, daughter of RFK, and charter member of the capitalist class and what may well be the Democratic Party’s first family, perhaps Rory doesn’t want to shine a light on some of her fellow Dems…

Be that as it may, Ms. Kennedy is a talented filmmaker. She painstakingly puts the pieces of her cinematic puzzle together skillfully, to render the big picture in Downfall of Boeing’s rise and fall, aided and abetted by the logic of capitalist greed, in collusion with government, which as Marx and Engels remarked in a certain 1848 Manifesto, is: “The executive of the modern state… but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”

Rory’s straightforward nonfiction production doesn’t have the flashy filmic verve of documentaries by envelope-pushing filmmakers, such as Michael Moore and Errol Morris. There is no charismatic, photogenic narrator or host seen and/or heard onscreen, and Ms. Kennedy’s use of what I assume are recreations is limited to brief cockpit and similar scenes, unlike extensive direction of reenactments in Steve James’ The Compassionate Spy. Instead of motion picture panache, Rory relies on the tried-and-true techniques of the documentary, patiently wearing out the shoe leather, comprehensively compiling the evidence to make her devastating case against Boeing – and by implication, corporate capitalism and governmental malfeasance, as well. Actor-turned-helmer Ron Howard shares executive producer credit for Downfall.

Ms. Kennedy has produced and/or directed a number of reliably liberal-leaning documentaries in the past, including 2004’s Indian Point: Imagining the Unimaginable, 2005’s Street Fight, 2006’s The Homestead Strike and 2007’s Ghost of Abu Ghraib, for which she won an Emmy Award. However, she also helmed 2014’s reactionary propaganda picture Last Days in Vietnam, a remarkably one-sided screed that attempted to justify aspects of the U.S. role in Indochina. (In a similar anti-communist vein, although known as a fighting liberal, Bobby Kennedy served as the Assistant Counsel on Investigations on Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunting Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations in 1953.)

All in all, Downfall: The Case Against Boeing makes a powerful case against Boeing, the FAA and the capitalist and governmental systems that allowed the manufacturer to unleash the 737 MAX killing machine on an unsuspecting flying public. It may not be ironic that a 2004 Oscar-nommed German feature about Hitler’s final days in his Berlin bunker starring Bruno Ganz is also named Downfall. After watching Rory Kennedy’s compelling Downfall, the viewer is likely to reach a number of conclusions – not only about capitalism, but that the wrong Kennedy sibling is currently running for president.

Downfall: The Case Against Boeing can be seen on Netflix.

Ed Rampell was named after legendary CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow because of his TV exposes of Senator Joe McCarthy. Rampell majored in Cinema at Manhattan’s Hunter College and is an L.A.-based film historian/critic who co-organized the 2017 70th anniversary Blacklist remembrance at the Writers Guild theater in Beverly Hills and was a moderator at 2019’s “Blacklist Exiles in Mexico” filmfest and conference at the San Francisco Art Institute. Rampell co-presented “The Hollywood Ten at 75” film series at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and is the author of Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States and co-author of The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.