Every so often, a documentary comes along that's also a horror film. Director Rory Kennedy's Downfall: The Case Against Boeing is one example.

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The new film is a harrowing look at the lead-up to and aftermath of two crashes that left 346 people dead. In the crashes, Lion Air Flight 610 on October 29, 2018 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 on March 10, 2019, answers as to what happened were initially in short supply as Boeing tried to blame the pilots.

Eventually, at the urging of journalists and the victims' families, the truth came out: the planes had faulty flight systems. What followed was a historic grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX passenger airliner.

The film looks at these crashes and Boeing's long presence in Seattle. In talking with workers who made the company what it was, it uncovers the steady erosion of care given to the construction of the planes. It shows how safety and quality dwindled as priorities as the company pursued increased profits. The consequences were deadly.

Originally premiering at Sundance, the documentary is released on Netflix this Friday. It is the most recent work of Kennedy, the youngest child of the late Robert F. Kennedy and a prolific documentary filmmaker whose previous work includes the 2014 Oscar-nominated film Last Days in Vietnam.

Before the film's release, Kennedy sat down for a virtual interview about her work on the documentary, its ties to Seattle, and what it shows us about the country's future.

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Courtesy Netflix

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

HUTCHINSON: Having seen your film a couple of times now, one aspect that struck me was the conversations you have with the victims' families. These are people talking about the worst days of their lives and the loved ones taken from them. How did you build up trust and connection in talking with the people we get to hear from?

KENNEDY: That was definitely the hardest part of making this film. Speaking with them and imagining the horror of what they had to endure, the loss of their children or parents or family members, and then added to that the fact that what contributed enormously to that loss was a drive towards profit. People at the top of Boeing were willing to risk people's lives in the interest of making money. There are no words.

I think that a lot of the family members frankly wanted to talk to me because I think they wanted to get their story out. In the immediate aftermath, there was kind of a press frenzy around it but as things go on, it quiets down. I think for some families they really wanted to help people understand what they endured and, for many of them, they have turned into advocates who want to ensure that this doesn't happen again so no other family has to go through what they went through.

When you mention this drive for profit, The Stranger's Charles Mudede also wrote about that in a review of your film. He said that "the story of Boeing's fall is also the story of the US's fall" in terms of how it became much more about capitalism and profit. As a broader systemic question, do you think America's economic priorities lead to harm against everyday people, as it did here? And what can be done about that?

Well, I think it can, and I appreciated that review and the question. My hope is that this film really helps people understand what happened with Boeing and the 737 Max crashes and prevent that from happening again. But my aspiration too is that it rises to something bigger and helps us look back on America, who we are, and what our priorities are. What happens when the desire for more and more money overtakes the public interest?

This is not the only story. It might be the most dramatic and horrendous, the idea of people dying so suddenly in a plane crash. There is something about it that is abject horror. I think that it's not the only industry where this is the case. I've certainly seen, particularly over the last decade or so, a drive for money that's unprecedented and wealth centers that are so out of sync.

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Courtesy Netflix

When it comes to the other sources you talked with, a primary one is Andy Pasztor, who reported on the story for The Wall Street Journal. How did you come to talk with him so extensively about the story?

Well, Andy had been following the story on the aviation beat for many decades. He had been on this story from the very beginning and had a number of revelations during the course of following this story that were quite important to, I think, our collective understanding of what happened. There are a number of other reporters who are following this story as well. Of course, Dominic Gates there in Seattle has also been a dogged reporter who I have huge respect for.

We felt it was important to have a number of perspectives in the film of people who were following this story and really on the front lines of it. In addition to Andy Pasztor as a reporter chasing down the story, we follow Congressman DeFazio, who led the investigation as the chair of the transportation and infrastructure committee, the biggest investigation in the committee's history to look into this case.

He's a significant part of our story, as is Michael Stumo, of course, whose daughter died in the Ethiopian airplane crash. Not of his own choosing, he has turned into an advocate and really led the efforts to get to the bottom of what happened to hold Boeing accountable. He's doing everything he can to make sure a crash like this doesn't happen again. We also interviewed a number of Boeing employees, past and present, and other folks who really help us understand from the inside out what happened.

Speaking of those workers, many of whom are from Seattle, this is a documentary that also ends up being about the state of American labor. Mudede also wrote this week that he is observing a trend of Boeing leaving our area to instead go to "states that have weak unions/cheap labor." What impact do you see that having on the future of Boeing and whether this could mean they push to cut corners elsewhere?

It's a very good question. I think what one really should do, and what we try to do in the film, is look back on Boeing's history. As one of our sources says in the film, Boeing was Seattle and Seattle was Boeing. They were in lockstep with each other and so synergistic. During those years where Boeing was in Seattle, exclusively, the unions had a voice and people who had any concerns about safety felt like they could speak up and that they weren't going to be fired.

You had a group of workers who had a long, long history of multifamily generations of building airplanes. Really great things happened when you had that synergistic sense of the managers working well together, the workers felt safe, the union had a presence and it was run by engineers who were making decisions based on engineering excellence. You saw some significant changes over the last 20 years with the McDonnell Douglas merger and management moving far away from the workers so they didn't have to hear what some people argue is the workers telling them what to do. They didn't want that voice so they wanted to be thousands of miles away.

Decisions were much more influenced by Wall Street and the bottom line than they were by what had historically been engineering excellence, period. Let's make the best plane, the greatest plane, the safest plane, they lost that. These choices, including the ones you're talking about which are going to states that don't have unions, it's about cost savings. That motivation, many feel, led to these crashes directly.

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Courtesy Netflix

In that line of thinking, I had read a piece you co-authored in Rolling Stone about the climate crisis, and I was thinking about that through much of the documentary. I was thinking about companies driven by profit and if they'll ever take action before a crisis. With Boeing, it certainly seemed like they had been aware of some of these problems but had only responded after catastrophe was already here. Having worked on this documentary and seen how far a company will go to avoid making changes, what do you see as the country's future in terms of the climate crisis?

I think that's a darn good question and I hope, when people watch this film, it inspires them to ask the same question. I think we need a massive correction in this country as well as many countries around the world. I think there is a young generation that sees the compromised life they have and what their future is because of a very selfish, money-driven culture. I'm concerned about the health and well-being of my children as a result of that. We need a massive correction to help us all prioritize the health and well-being of the general public as well as this planet.

As you pointed out earlier, when corporations are left on their own they're going to be driven by profit. Our elected officials and the regulatory agencies that they empower and oversee need to make sure that the public interest is being looked after. I think that that's not happening in the way that it needs to across many industries. This is one example and I think it's one people can relate to. My hope is that it transmits a larger question about the fact that we are out of balance. It's left to the citizens to make those kinds of demands and vote people into office who are going to do the right thing to balance it out.

You can see Downfall: The Case Against Boeing on Netflix starting February 18.