• Paul Rutherford


Updated: Jun 10

The film Worth has really stuck with me. I only watched it because Michael Keaton is in it. And he is so good in The Founder, Spotlight and Birdman (of the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) this was an easy choice.

As in The Founder and Spotlight, here Keaton plays a character based on a real person. This time Kenneth Feinberg, a lawyer who was the 'special master' of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund.

And yes, Special Master is a real job title. In US law, it's someone appointed by a court to carry out an action on its behalf. In this case, the court was US Congress.

The reason that the movie has stuck with me is a scene at the very start. While lecturing to a room of law undergraduates Feinberg writes 'what is life worth?' on the blackboard. then says:

"This isn't a philosophy class."

The next two hours show that the question it's nothing but that.


In 2001, there were some 7000 lives to be valued. In the film - reflecting what really happened - Feinberg's answer is an algorithm into which he tries to fit all of those lives. And quickly (two hours covering two years) he discovers that individual lives don't fit.

At one end, there's a rapacious lawyer who wants to sue the airlines (and probably tank the US economy) on behalf of his High Net Worth Individual clients. At the other, immigrant families have the impression that a suggested figure of $200,000 is going to be divided amongst all of them. Then they feel blessed when they learn it will be $200k each.

And in between, a range of people: The mother of a firefighter who wants to know if her son is valued more or less than a "pen pusher" who worked in one of the towers; a gay partner who hadn't married so is regarded as "non-existent" in the law of his home state (Virginia); the widower who wants to "fix the fund" because he believes it to be unfair.

One of the aspects of the film that captures with scalpel-like clarity is indeed the complexity of the project. The conflicting parties ( the Republican government, the airlines, the lobbyists, other lawyers, those who were in the buildings at the time of the crash, those who went into the buildings days and weeks later). These aspects are shown through individual scenes, where each perspective layers another problem on finding resolution.

(If I make the movie sound like a legal case study, written with the dry language of legal documents, I'm not doing it justice. Think of this unpacking as a look at the underlying structure of a Rembrandt portrait or the engineering beneath the bodywork of a Bugatti racer.)

Put these together, one after another, and Feinberg's position becomes increasingly difficult - to the point of impossibility. And he has a deadline approaching and an acceptance target that he must make.


So in genre terms, is this a legal thriller? Is it a financial puzzle? Perhaps a docudrama about post-9/11 impact? It may be classified as some or all of these categories. But at its heart it's really not about any of that.

Worth is about a man finding his soul by reconnecting with humanity.

Feinberg was one of the few people who were qualified to do this job; he and his firm had many years of experience handling these types of cases. And to do so, he relied on algorithms. A number of variables entered into a spreadsheet, generating a financial value.

The more pressure he receives from all sides, the more he relies on the algorithm. "This isn't about being fair. It's about being equal. Without the algorithm it will never be solved."

Well there is an answer, and it forces itself into Feinberg's reception. All the member of staff who have been protecting him (or rather, he's been hiding behind) have gone home. The wife of a firefighter arrives, and Feinberg uncomfortably invites her into his office. There she tells him that she doesn't want to claim, just wants her husband's story to be told.

Feinberg does his best to fend her off, but her story - which in itself becomes more complicated - won't go away. To resolve it, it must be resolved on its own terms. It's through those individual circumstances, and other stories his team uncover, that the 'fund is fixed'. Because the people are heard.

And Feinberg finds his soul.


The larger the organization, the larger the cost, the more likely leaders will look to the data. But you can't always rely on numbers and algorithms to solve complexity. Sometimes the answer is to deal with people as individuals.

The wisdom of Worth is knowing how and when to separate one type of problem from the other.

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