We all know the typical gestures of condolence: flowers, an assurance of prayers, a listening ear when the mourner wants to talk. And though many of us prefer not to acknowledge it, money matters here too. In order to care for the deceased and the living with dignity, money makes possible a funeral, a burial, perhaps a charitable fund to support the family, and in the case of loss due to injustice, legal settlements.
But if money must play a role in alleviating a loss, the question remains: Just how much of a role should it play so that it violates neither justice nor compassion? And what if the tragedy at hand to be alleviated is a terrorist attack?
These are the questions at the heart of Worth.
In the recent Netflix film based on real events, lawyer Ken Feinberg (Michael Keaton) spearheads the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, a project authorized by Congress, charged with determining a dollar amount to offer each victim (or their family) in exchange for their agreement not to sue the airline companies involved in the attacks.
From the outset, the film leans into the tension of the project. On the one hand, the enormous scale of the task (involving approximately 7,000 cases) calls for efficiency and a streamlined formula in order to avoid a chaotic and interminable process. On the other hand, each of those 7,000 cases is a person with unique stories, pains, and needs. In the film, Feinberg embodies the former perspective, and his foil is Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci), left a widower from the attacks, who sees the fund formula as cold-hearted and encourages victims to demand reform or opt for legal compensation instead.
In these two characters, we have the two ends of the scale: On the one end, the project should prioritize money, and on the other, the project should prioritize people. So where is the mean between the extremes? Unfortunately, Worth does not give us a clear answer. Or rather, at different moments it gives us different and conflicting answers.
The film presents Feinberg as the well-intentioned but misguided lawyer who has a lesson to learn — because, as Wolf puts it, he fails to see the people behind the numbers.
But the truth is that Feinberg’s assignment isn’t personal. After all, in establishing the fund, the government is only trying to prevent the economic crisis that could occur from a torrent of lawsuits battering the airline industry. Within this context, Feinberg views his job like any other: calculate the dollar value lost by a premature death and compensate the estimated value accordingly. Arguably, Feinberg has every right to be impersonal.
The point, it seems, that the film tries to make is that in a project like this, one can’t help but get personal — and in order to have any moral ground to stand on, one should put names over numbers.
This is the point that Wolf stands for: it’s not about the money, it’s about the victims’ voices, which must be heard.
Fair enough. But Wolf cannot claim indifference to money either. After all, he and his fellow dissidents to the fund intend to seek retribution through lawsuits, which would in all likelihood hand them far more money than Feinberg could. Even if it is mainly the fund’s apparent injustice that repulses Wolf, it’s hard to believe that a more lucrative alternative doesn’t sway his preference.
While all this is happening, Feinberg’s experience draws him more into Wolf’s mindset. As he opens ears to the victims’ stories, he starts focusing less on the formula and more on the faces before him. In the film’s climax, this change of heart spurs an influx of fund participants — led by none other than Wolf, who has publicly proclaimed that the victim compensation fund has found a heart and is now therefore the better option.
Once Feinberg and his team reach the 80% threshold of participants necessary to achieve the fund’s goal, one would think that they had just reached a fundraising goal for a children’s hospital. Tears, laughter, soft piano background music — in this moment, Worth pitches the success of the victim compensation fund as a win for human compassion.
But wait, wasn’t the project’s goal strictly economic, a monetary transaction to protect the economy?
As moving as Feinberg and his staff’s conversations with the mourning family members are, it’s hard to get excited about the impetus of their project, which is giving victims x amount of money from the government rather than y amount of (probably much more) money from a legal settlement. And because that project is the crux of the entire film, that lack of emotional appeal makes the story sag.
The contradictions don’t even stop there. While Feinberg’s experience overseeing the fund seems to be a lesson that money doesn’t really matter in the end, the victims the film highlights the most tell us that it very much does.
There’s Karen Donato (Laura Benanti), the widow of a firefighter and mother of three children, who learns that her husband had two other children through an affair who are entitled to compensation funds too. Then there’s Graham Morris (Andy Schneeflock), a gay man whose partner died in the attacks and who cannot receive any compensation because he resides in a state that does not recognize same-sex unions.
In both of these cases, who gets how much money means everything. Though the discovery of the affair pains her, a tearful Karen asks Feinberg to see to it that her husband’s children get the financial support they need. And when Feinberg’s business partner Camille Biros (Amy Ryan) makes the bad news phone call to Graham, her choked-up message gives every impression that because they could offer him no money through the fund, they have failed him as a person. But didn’t we just learn that what mattered was compassion, not money? Weren’t we just told that the attentiveness Feinberg’s team offered each person had been enough, regardless of the dollar amount offered?
Granted, the film has the challenge of relaying real-world situations, and Colangelo could not untangle the situation without straying from the genuine story. That being said, the story she chooses to tell is rather perplexing, since it only succeeds in conveying the complexity of the matter. Through a high-spirited ending, it grasps at a sweeping resolution and moral victory — but without actually resolving the tensions at hand.
This is a shame, since those tensions are a daily reality for many of us: How much money should I give to someone in need? What amount would be stingy, and what amount would be just throwing money at the problem? How do I fold in personal attention and compassion to turn that money into not just a transaction but a gift?
The simple answer is that money matters, but people matter more, and our actions should follow that order. Worth tries to send us this message, but it gets tripped up by its own premise. If anything, the film raises important ethical questions to ponder, but go somewhere else to find concrete answers.