“Flight/Risk” is a powerful work of advocacy. This documentary from directors Karim Amer and Omar Mullick advocates on behalf of the loved ones of the 346 people who died in the two Boeing 737 MAX jetliner crashes in 2018 and 2019.
Their anguish is palpable as they recollect cherished memories of those they lost. One of the movie’s most moving scenes is of a big crowd of family members lined up behind the witness table during a congressional hearing into the tragedy, silently holding up large photos of the victims. Doing so, “you don’t let people become numbers,” a family member says. They have faces. They have presence. They are people who are missed.
Among the most prominent figures in “Flight/Risk” is Dominic Gates, longtime aerospace reporter for The Seattle Times whose coverage of the jet’s troubled history earned him and three other reporter colleagues a Pulitzer Prize in 2020.
Ed Pierson is another significant voice. He’s a whistleblower whose urgent warnings about Boeing’s production problems were ignored by higher-ups, though the crashes seemed to prove him prescient about the likely outcome of the company’s rush to market.
Zipporah Kuria, whose father was one of the 157 passengers aboard the Ethiopian Airlines jet that crashed in Ethiopia on March 10, 2019, is one of the most eloquent on-camera voices memorializing the victims. Her grief motivated her to become an advocate for airline safety.
The filmmakers cover a lot of ground in the picture’s 98-minute running time, starting with the maiden flight of the MAX model in Renton in 2016 where it’s hailed as a significant upgrade of the 737 model. That’s quickly followed by the Oct. 29, 2018, crash of a Lion Air jet into the Java Sea off Indonesia, which Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg at the time essentially described as a one-off incident and declared “the 737 is safe.”
When the Ethiopian crash came less than five months later and the plane was grounded, the unraveling of the company’s fortunes commenced. Boeing’s downward spiral — which took a toll on the company’s stock price, devastated its sales and ultimately resulted in the board of directors firing Muilenburg — takes up the bulk of the picture.
Gates is depicted doggedly uncovering the company’s missteps and misdeeds. He traces Boeing’s transition from a company that valued engineering excellence above all else to one aggressively focused on pumping up its bottom line to the 1997 merger with McDonnell Douglas. Boeing’s resistance to his digging prompts him to declare, “It’s always better to work with me. If you don’t, I will write it without you.”
He’s a classic shoe-leather reporter, poring over leaked documents and meeting whistleblowers, sometimes clandestinely. In a scene like something right out of “All the President’s Men,” he meets a source in a parking garage overlooking the Seattle waterfront. The man’s voice is electronically altered to disguise it and his face blurred for the camera.
Gates was at the Thursday night Seattle screening of the movie and received an ovation at the picture’s conclusion.
Pierson, a longtime loyal Boeing employee, is anguished over the company’s decision to ignore his warnings. Yet despite his despair, he persists in talking about his findings. He will not be deterred. He, too, was at Thursday’s screening.
The directors pile so much information into the picture that the viewer occasionally becomes lost amid the parade of talking heads, among which are Times news executives discussing coverage. In some of those scenes, you wonder: Who are these people, exactly?
Despite its flaws, “Flight/Risk” is a comprehensive and stinging critique of a once-proud company that has lost its way and is struggling to make a comeback. And it’s a tribute to the people who died and the families who mourn them.