What is a life worth?
“The answer is a number. And that’s the job,” Ken Feinberg tells his law class at Georgetown University.
Of course, Ken is a longtime lawyer who generally deals with that question from the neutral safety of a courtroom or the academic distance of a classroom. His focus is procedureal and based on statistics and actuarial tables from the top life insurance companies.
Ken, however, will soon face something a little different.
When two fully packed airliners are used as explosive missles on 9/11—the World Trade Center goes down and the Petagon burns—there are suddenly thousands of victims. The dead comprise people from all walks of life: policemen and airline passengers, high-rise executives and janitors.
And the U.S. government worries that thousands of surviving families could turn into tens of thousands of potential litigants. And that mighty wave of drawn-out class action suits would not only bring down the airlines, it could create havok and possibly crater the U.S. economy altogether.
So, the government decides that an unprecedented fund should be created, something that can compensate the surviving familes’ loss and pain and suffering. Something controllable and as uniform as possible.
They turn to Ken, the head of one of the few big firms that deals solely in death-and-casualty suits, for help. He takes on the job pro bono. He sees it as a way that he can give back: his patriotic duty. He’s done this sort of thing for years. This is simply on a larger scale.
But there is a big difference in this case. This isn’t a coldly detached courtroom, this is a swirling mass of survivors of some 7,000 people, all currently sitting on the razor’s edge of fresh loss and crippling grief. And there isn’t an actuarial table anywhere that will make them all happy.
So what is a life worth?
Ken will soon learn that it takes so much more than just a number to answer that question.
What starts out as a quest to avert yet another disaster connected to the 9/11 attack turns for Ken into something that transforms how he sees people and his legal profession.
There are many people within the group of survivors, and the victim’s families, who care very little about the financial compensation. Instead, they simply want their loved one’s story to be part of the official governmental record: They talk of their sons’ and fathers’ bravery and sacrifice, devotion and love.
One woman, upon learning that her husband has fathered children with another woman, selflessly requests that those kids “get what they need” from the government fund. Ultimately, the film asks us to consider the people in our lives and think about the value of their and other’s lives.
Karen, the wife of a firefighter, wears a cross necklace. A man in a crowd of angry survivors calls Ken a “Jew lawyer.” Someone mentions being of the Catholic faith. One of the surviving family members tells her story and states that she’s angry at the government and God for letting 9/11 happen.
It’s revealed that Nick, the firefighter husband of Karen, had a second family consisting of a mistress and two children.
A gay man, who was living with a male victim is told that he can’t receive any compensation because of Virginia State law. That, and the dead man’s “gay-hating” parents, are used to make a social statement about same-sex relationships in this film.
There are no truly violent images onscreen, but the movie is filled with an unsettling sense of the devastating deadliness of 9/11. We see newsreel film of the aftermath of the actual attack, with coughing, staggering, and in some cases bloodied, people in the debris-choked, smoky streets of New York City. And we’re told of the growing number who are dead or suffering from the aftermath of the attacks.
As the movie goes on, we hear many stories of people with lost loved ones; in some cases, we hear about the horrible ways those loved ones died. (There are recordings, for instance, of some who got caught in the smoke-filled buildings, choking and gasping as they tried to call home.) One couple talks of sitting for four days at the beside of a terribly burned, unrecognizable man—whom they thought was their son—only to find out that he was someone else and that their son had died in the interim.
Someone drives by on the street and hits Ken with a large cup of soda while cussing at him crudely.
There isn’t a large volume of nasty language here, but the few exclamations we do hear are indeed quite foul: three f-words and four misuses of God’s and Jesus’ names (two a combination of God with “d–n”).
We see people in restaurants drinking wine or mixed drinks with their meals.
While Ken struggles to find a financial solution that fits everyone, a group of high-priced lawyers declare that their business-client victims “deserve more” than average people who weren’t earning at least six figures.
Ken hears his own words repeated to him by another lawyer: “Fair is not the goal, just finish and move on!” (Based on that self-revelation and other circumstances, Ken realizes that he needs to pay more attention to the wounded souls he’s been ignoring.)
There have been a number of films portraying the heroic acts that took place during and after the vicious 9/11 attacks. Worth, however, is a 9/11 film of a different stripe altogether.
At its core, this movie tells the story of the U.S. government—in the dark shadows of 9/11—trying to save the airline industry and in turn the American economy from its own victimized and potentially litigious citizenry. You could envision that kind of pic being either a number-crunching bore or something filled with rancorous actions that are too ugly to cheer.
Fortunately, this film is neither. Instead, Worth focuses on a lawyer’s earnest transition from pragmatism to empathy. And thanks to some finely tuned acting from its seasoned cast, this film delivers a moving memorial to our collective grief after 9/11, and it challenges us to consider the value of every human life.
For all of those strengths, however, potential viewers should note that there are some intensely emotional interludes and a few cultural soapbox moments woven into the story mix. And you’ll need to endure a smattering of sharp foul language as well.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.