A Vulgar Business
We say that all lives have value. Do they? If so, what exactly is that value? To ponder a question like that is, at best, distasteful. At worst, it’s a monstrous concept that’s so big, it almost can’t be grappled with. But someone has to. Someone has to take the decisions and idiosyncrasies that live in each of our lives and break it all down into some kind of hard data.
Consider the lives and deaths of two people on September 11, 2001. One of them worked in Windows on the World*, the restaurant that dwelled on the 106th and 107th floors of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Directly below were the corporate headquarters of Cantor Fitzgerald. The financial services firm occupied the 101st to the 105th floors, and that’s where the second person was employed.
Both of them died on that beautiful September morning, the victims of fanatics who worshipped death more than they prized progress. When you take into account their respective ages, educational backgrounds, family situations, occupations, and the amounts of money they would have earned had they not been murdered, were their lives equal in value? The only thing that everyone agreed on initially was that in death, all of the victims of 9/11 were equal. In one of the few moments of swift government action, the Air Transportation Safety and System Stabilization Act was passed.** It was designed to offer financial compensation to the families of the victims, with the understanding that they would agree not to sue the airlines involved and cripple the American economy.
As always happens, things got complicated. Again, everyone agreed that the victims were equal. It wasn’t long before, to paraphrase Orwell, some of them seemed to be more equal than others. An argument was likely made that the person who worked at Cantor Fitzgerald deserved a far larger payout than the person who worked at Windows on the World, simply due to their employment. That was only the first argument, the first of thousands. The story of the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund is the story of people trying to do the right thing and coming at it from radically different points of view. The new film Worth examines those events and tries mightily to get its arms around massive ethical questions.
Ken Feinberg (Michael Keaton) has thought extensively about the value of a human life. His experience in settling lawsuits involving Agent Orange and asbestos led him to develop a formula. Free of emotion and truly impartial, the formula calculates a financial settlement payout based on what a victim would have earned during their lifetime. The formula seems to work since, in the end, it has a cold kind of logic.
September 11 happens, an event that’s both like many others and utterly unique. Ken is horrified. He wants to give something back to his country and has experience with settlements that could be put to good use. During a meeting with Attorney General John Ashcroft (Victor Slezak), Ken is appointed to be the Special Master of the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund. Ken’s law partner Camille Biros (Amy Ryan) backs him up, and he thinks he can offer a kind of fairness to the families
The assumption is that the formula will prevail. Ken says that ultimately, “No one walks away too happy, only happy enough to walk away.” The raw anger and frustration he’s confronted with at an introductory meeting prove his assumption false. Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci) is there, a soft-spoken man whose wife died in the attacks. He feels that Ken’s formula is rigid, offensive, and he decides to lead an effort to protest the fund.
Time is not on Ken’s side. He has until January 1, 2004, to convince at least 80 percent of the families to sign onto the fund. If he fails, the fund falls apart, and the families have the eligibility to sign onto a lawsuit they’ll likely lose. He’ll also need to learn that, for the families, the fund isn’t about money. It’s about acknowledging that their lost loved ones are more than numbers in a spreadsheet.
Somewhere in an alternate universe, there’s a version of Worth that’s insufferable. That version includes cartoonishly evil villains, a distasteful romance, and an inspirational speech near the end where the families give Ken a standing ovation. Thankfully, we don’t live in that universe. Director Sara Colangelo dodges all of that foolishness and instead has made a complex ethical thriller with subtlety and creativity. Watch the scene early on where the horror of 9/11 is unfolding. Ken is on a commuter train, fiddling with a portable CD player. As he does, we see one person in the background look out the window. Then another. Then another. Soon the passengers are on cellphones and a harried railroad employee brushes off a question. It’s only after all that has happened that Ken notices the commotion and sees the enormous black cloud in the distance. Most of the scenes are simply people in rooms talking to each other, but Colangelo’s smart editing and immersive cinematography prevent it from feeling repetitive. We feel like we’re being told those stories.
That’s one of the best aspects of the ambitious script by Max Borenstein, the time spent hearing the stories told by the families. It reminds us that every victim was a person, all a mass of unique contradictions. That time not only humanizes them but also reminds us that, until now, Ken has had the luxury of dealing with those who died in a legal and intellectual sense. Borenstein also does excellent work showing us the various points of view that came up in the creation of the fund. How should the benefits work for a gay couple when the deceased’s parents don’t believe he was gay? If all of the benefits are the same amount, what about the victims who were financial professionals earning serious compensation? Those and other questions needed to be considered, and Borenstein reminds us that most people would hate to have those conversations. There are no “bad guys,” just people trying to do the right thing as they see it. At times, the enormity of this aspect of 9/11 is too large for Borenstein’s script, and it can do little more than gesture to it. That’s understandable, and in a small way, he was confronted with a similar dilemma as Ken Feinberg and his staff. In the end, they could only do their best.
Across the board, the cast turns in strong and natural performances. There are no histrionics and no characters portrayed as either saints or sinners, which is as it should be. Of a group of solid actors, two stood out to me. The first, naturally, is Michael Keaton. It takes a minute or two to get used to his Noo Yawk accent, but that’s the only aspect that’s showy. Everything else in Keaton’s performance is subtle. He’s one of those actors who’s good at listening and thinking. You can see him taking in information, considering it, and when he’s wrong, adjusting his behavior. The second is Laura Benanti, playing the widow of a fallen firefighter. I liked that, as Karen Donato, she’s playing a woman who has suffered a massive loss and is trying to cope, but she can’t yet. How could she, considering there’s no body for her to bury? She doesn’t look at the money from the fund as an opportunity for her family to move on. All she really wants is the recognition of who her husband was, flaws and all.
As I write this, 9/11 was twenty years and four days ago. Much has happened since then. Two unwinnable wars. A pandemic. A gradual and inexorable hardening between two camps of Americans. What hasn’t changed is the simple fact that most people are good. Most people want to do the right thing, even when faced with the impossible task of valuing the worth of a human being. Worth recognizes that fact, and recognizes that even in the face of our own fragility, we still try
*As a teenager in the late 1980’s, my father took me to Windows on the World for a wildly expensive snack and the famous fifty mile view. I’ve been in my fair share of tall buildings, but there was only once where I was acutely aware that the building I was in was swaying. It stuck with me and even now I occasionally have bad dreams about the experience.
**I’ve been wondering, with the insane polarization in our country right now, could the same piece of legislation even be passed?