Based on real-life events surrounding the trauma of 9/11, this movie invites viewers to reflect on the central question of “What is life worth?” The beginning scene shows legal scholar Kenneth Feinberg (Michael Keaton) throwing out this question at a class of college students. He asks them to engage with the legal and moral conundrum in situations that deal with compensation for families of victims who suffered wrongful death.
After the New York terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Feinberg volunteers to head the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, a government-sponsored project that offers monetary restitution for families who lost loved ones. Feinberg is aware of its shadowy motivation—to protect the major airlines and the U.S. economy. But as a practical person, a lawyer, and a citizen, Feinberg is confident that something good can come out of it.
Feinberg’s legal team must come up with a general formula to determine the baseline value of every American who died in 9/11. Then they need to get at least 80% of all affected individuals to agree on these terms. Soon the tension between what can be done within rigid legal boundaries and what care should be provided for these families begins to crush Feinberg’s overconfidence. After he listens to the impact statement of one widow, Feinberg finds himself sliding into more doubt. The question of “What is life worth?” is looking straight back at him.
Stanley Tucci plays a positive role here of the fund’s primary protestor Charles Wolf, who lost his wife in 9/11. The conversations and exchanges between these two genuine men reminds me of the movie The Two Popes, with two magnetic characters from opposing ideological sides challenging and sharpening each other’s conscience. Feinberg finally comes to a full reckoning of what the fund must do for victims.
If the question “What is life worth?” sticks with the viewer, then this movie has done something great. More than a “Grinch finds a heart” tale, it is about how we come together with empathy after trauma, heal, and find ourselves again. (Rated PG-13, Netflix)