TL;DR – what is a life worth? In the wake of 9/11 terrorist attacks, the lives lost and the lives left behind are examined in terms of dollar value and what compensation can be given. Based on the true story of Kenneth Feinberg, the man tasked to do this impossible task.
Review (warning: spoilers)
Should the family of a CEO who died in the September 11th attacks be worth more in terms of monetary compensation than a janitor who also perished? Where does one draw the line in terms of first responders (e.g. fire fighters) who suffered asbestos inhalation and health problems months or years after the tragedy? What is their worth (and compensation) versus those who came to help three days after the event trying to help recover anyone who might still be alive under all the rubble?
Kenneth Feinberg (Michael Keaton) is the man who sets out on determining the monetary value of a person’s life. He is appointed the Special Master of the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund and works with his law partner, Camille Biros (Amy Ryan). The formula that Feinberg comes up with to determine compensation is primarily based on a person’s income. Feinberg is genuinely looking to help those devastated by the attacks and serve his country because he knows that if the estimated 7000 victims were to file a lawsuit, the process will drag out for years in court, and the victims and their families potentially losing and not receiving a cent. However, when he presents his formula, he’s viewed as insensitive and aloof.
In reality, Feinberg knows that he cannot achieve any level of objectivity if he becomes emotionally involved. In terms of law, and the application of the law, he does not (and cannot) view the question – what is a life worth? – as a philosophical question. He has to draw lines in the sand, apply what current state laws stipulate, and is instructed to get at 80% of the 7000 victims to commit to the fund otherwise the fund falls through.
The outcry from victims to Feinberg’s formula is understandable. Feinberg, Biros and their team experience an onslaught of pressure both political and emotional that is not short of titanic and like the ship of the same name, they are in fear of drowning and losing their own sense of self.
The interviews of the victims and their stories is wide ranging and emphasises the impossibility of the situation. Class, race, culture, and state marriage laws are all wrapped in the tragedy and causes endless debate on how they factor in the fund’s formula.
But it is Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci) who lost his wife in the 9/11 attacks that has the greatest impact on Feinberg. He confronts Feinberg calmly and respectfully, and states in no uncertain terms that he finds the formula completely offensive and will seek to gather others in protesting the fund. Wolf sets up a website called “Fix the Fund” and gathers a large following, which inhibits Feinberg and his team in getting victims to commit to the payouts. It should be noted that Wolf does not hate Feinberg, but instead wants him to step up and achieve more than what he is doing.
Michael Keaton, Amy Ryan and Stanley Tucci are outstanding in their roles and carry the movie. I was deeply moved by not only those impacted by the 9/11 attacks but by what Feinberg and Biros were seeking to achieve. Again, an impossible situation, yet in the end, they were able to get 97% of the victims to commit to the fund resulting in billions being distributed by the government. For better or worse, the world operates around a giant economic machine and money is a tool and method to exchange for food and services. Every individual life is worth innumerably more than this, but this is the world we live in.
This film does not dig deeper into the wider range issues of the terrorist attacks, but it does promote thinking and emotional contemplation of what it means to get along, the value of each and every one of us, and the importance of family and community. It never presumes to look at the question – what is a life worth? – through a philosophical lens. But there is one message that is clear, a person’s life is not a number and it never will be.
7.5 out of 10