Eleven days after September 11, 2001, Congress passed a law to disburse billions of dollars in compensation to the families of victims. The government appointed one man to be in charge of that operation, Ken Feinberg, a well-respected lawyer and mediator in Washington, D.C.
Now, Netflix has premiered a new film, “Worth,” which is about Feinberg’s work, and stars Michael Keaton as the lawyer.
“The entire concept of fairness comes into question throughout the film. How do you determine the “worth” of a life?”
Feinberg had the sweeping title of “Special Master” of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. That title gave Feinberg broad discretion on doling out over $7 billion to thousands of families still raw with grief and trauma from those attacks. The payments were not to be equal, but based on “economic value lost.”
The film tackles the question that nobody wanted to ask: “How much is a life worth monetarily?” It is based on a book that Feinberg wrote 15 years ago, “What Is Life Worth?: The Unprecedented Effort to Compensate the Victims of 9/11.”
“When I wrote the book which the film’s based over 15 years ago, I never thought a film could accurately convey what we went through with the 9/11 fund,” Feinberg told the Journal. “But, much to my pleasure, the movie is a fairly accurate depiction of the tone and difficulties we confronted in providing compensation voluntarily to over 5,000 people.”
“Worth” premiered at Sundance in early 2020 and was in limited release until Netflix started streaming it eight days before the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. Feinberg watched the film at Sundance, and once more in late August at The Paris Theater in New York.
“Frankly, I was pleased that the film and the actors and the director managed to convey the heart and soul of the 9/11 victim compensation fund and it worked out well,” Feinberg said.
It is repeated in many forms throughout the film that Feinberg was doing “the job that nobody wanted.” He and his small staff had to look into the faces of families of 9/11 victims and listen to their stories, and undergo the arduous task of determining a numerical “fairness” of funds to be potentially distributed to them.
The entire concept of fairness comes into question throughout the film. How do you determine the “worth” of a life? When you need to have parameters for “economic value lost,” how do you tell the family of a firefighter that they get less compensation than a stock trader—even though they both died in the same building? These are real questions Feinberg had to consider.
Although Feinberg wrote a book about the experience, a two-hour film on Netflix will share his story to a much broader audience. And the film may end up being the legacy to anyone who never picks up his book. Feinberg seems content with that.
“There’s always some dramatic license,” he said. “But overall, I think the movie does a remarkable job of conveying what we went through.”
But he does have a hope for anyone who sees the film and learns the story.
“More than anything else, I hope that viewers will appreciate how just 20 years ago, a fund was created that was apolitical,” he said. “It wasn’t Republican versus Democrat, red state versus blue state, liberal [vs.] conservative. It was apolitical. The nation rallied as a whole, as one community, to try to help innocent victims. I’m not sure you can see that today in our current political climate, but back then, I think the viewers could see what’s possible when everybody works together for a common good.”