Thursday, September 2, 2021

Determining the worth of a human life

   There's nothing terribly distinguished about the filmmaking in Worth, the real-life story of a battle for justice that ripped its way through the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. 
   But director Sara Colangelo's issue-oriented focus makes Worth a movie that's likely to spur valuable discussions about morality, law, and bureaucracy.
   The movie also boasts a strong performance by Michael Keaton as Ken Feinberg, an attorney who took on a case that required him to define criteria for compensating those who lost loved ones when the twin towers collapsed on 9/11.
    A man of actuarial temperament, Feinberg begins the movie by drawing the distinction between philosophy and law. He knows that in a legal setting, determining the value of lost life inevitably leads to a dollar amount.
    Ergo, the movie's key issue. Should compensation be guided, as Feinberg initially proposes, by factors that would lead to a CEO receiving more than a janitor, say? Should funds be equally distributed to everyone or, at minimum, should each case receive individual treatment? 
     Feinberg sought out a task that few attorneys wanted. In the emotionally volatile wake of 9/11, he lobbied then- Attorney General John Ashcroft (Victor Slezak) for appointment as the fund's Special Master.
      He thought he could do good and convince 80 percent of the survivors to agree to the proposed settlement terms by a September 2003 deadline. 
    The objective: to avoid crippling individual suits against airlines, a flood of litigation that might have severely impacted the economy while tying up courts for years. 
   Stanley Tucci plays Charles Wolfe, a man who lost his wife on 9/11. He becomes an activist for more equitable distribution, organizing a FixTheFund movement. 
     Colangelo opts to keep the conflict at low-key levels, a wise decision because when any story involving 9/11 already has high enough stakes.
    She also presents scenes in which survivors tell their stories, including a back story about a New York City Fireman with a complicated history.
    The more personal side of the drama involves Feinberg's willingness to adopt a new approach, a part of the movie that may not be adequately dramatized. Still, Keaton's restrained performance helps to sell it -- at least partially.
    Worth may not reach the hoped-for heights but it suggests a harsh reality. No amount of money can make up for the loss of life -- but at some point, numbers rear their inescapable heads. Conflict seems the inevitable and sad result.

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