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Netflix movie starring Michael Keaton as the man in charge of the Victims Compensation Fund

Worth, the new movie from director Sara Colangelo and screenwriter Max Borenstein, tells the story of Kenneth Feinberg, the man who was put in charge of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. The fund, set up only days after the attacks, was Congress’s attempt to simultaneously protect airlines from ruinous lawsuits and compensate the families of the victims for their unfathomable losses. We’ve consulted Feinberg’s book, profiles of some of its main characters, and other sources to sort out what’s true and what’s artistic license in the Netflix drama. Note: Nobody 2021 Streaming VF

Kenneth Feinberg
Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer who was Special Master of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, is played by Michael Keaton in the movie, and his portrait is typical for this kind of movie: There are a lot of correct details, but the overall shape of events has been massaged a little to fit into a film narrative. Feinberg chronicled his experiences overseeing the fund in What Is Life Worth?: The Unprecedented Effort to Compensate the Victims of 9/11, and it’s one of the primary sources for Borenstein’s screenplay. As seen in the movie, Feinberg is immediately identifiable as being from Massachusetts, but his accent is a little less strong than Keaton’s (extremely fun) performance. By way of comparison, CSPAN has video of the Dec. 20, 2001 press conference at which he explained the victim compensation fund: Note: Oxygène 2021 Streaming VF

Feinberg’s love of classical music is real, as is the listening room in his house, complete with an extensive and well-catalogued CD collection. The bravura sequence in which Feinberg, ensconced in his headphones, fails to notice his fellow passengers receiving news of the Sept. 11 attacks, however, is an invention of the movie. On the morning of Sept. 11, the real Feinberg learned about the attack in stages: He saw the aftermath of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center on a TV in a common area at the University of Pennsylvania after teaching a class there, and then, on a train from Philadelphia to Wilmington, passengers with portable radios spread the news of the second tower and the attack on the Pentagon. He wasn’t anywhere near the Pentagon and did not see the aftermath from a train window. Note: La Famille Addams 2 Une virée d’enfer 2021 Streaming VF

The movie also fudges some details about Feinberg’s involvement in the Sept. 11 Victims Compensation Fund, implying that Sen. Ted Kennedy asked Feinberg to help out because so few people specialized in victim compensation. Feinberg did have extensive experience in that sort of case, having worked on the Agent Orange settlements as well as other high-profile mediations, but he lobbied to get the position. The movie shows him in a meeting with senators Ted Kennedy and Chuck Hagel on Sept. 22, 2001, discussing how the victims fund should work. Although it’s an effective way to deliver a lot of exposition, that meeting probably didn’t happen. Sept. 22 was the day George W. Bush signed the bill establishing the fund, and by then the details had already been hammered down. According to Feinberg, he got the job by calling Hagel, who’d been in the the United States Department of Veterans Affairs during Feinberg’s work on the Agent Orange cases, after reading about the bill in the newspaper. Hagel advanced Feinberg’s name to Attorney General John Ashcroft, who appointed Feinberg after meeting with him twice. Note: Infinite 2021 Streaming VF

Worth is a movie about a lawyer finding his conscience, and to fit that mold, Feinberg is made to seem more aloof than he really seems to have been. In his memoir, he explains that he spent about a year traveling to meet with the families of the victims of Sept. 11, presenting the details of the compensation fund. The movie compresses several anecdotes from Feinberg’s memoir from these early meetings into one disastrous scene in which he utterly fails to connect with the audience. That’s standard dramatic compression, and profiles of Feinberg from the time confirm that he came across as pretty chilly and was not exactly beloved by the families of the victims. But the movie goes out of its way to play this up, showing Feinberg meeting with the lawyers of high value victims while an associate and his office administrator Camille Biros meet with families from South America in an office overlooking Ground Zero. In fact, Feinberg attended both of those meetings on April 29, 2003. Note: The Tomorrow War 2021 Streaming VF

The movie goes on to suggest that Feinberg was not used to meeting with victims one-on-one until the widow of a fireman showed up late at night when the other lawyers weren’t around. Although Feinberg began reaching out to families through town hall meetings, within three months he began offering one-on-one meetings to any family who wanted one, not because of a change of heart but because he realized they’d need better estimates of their potential award before deciding to file for compensation. There was no moment when Feinberg threw out his formula for determining compensation, delighting his coworkers who secretly knew he’d do the right thing when the chips were down. According to his memoir, his plan from the beginning had been to use his discretion in individual cases to narrow the gap between the highest and lowest compensation. Feinberg does say in his memoir that he became more empathetic and a better listener from the experience of working with the families of the victims, but the corporate-lawyer-regains-his-humanity arc is pure Hollywood. Note: Madame Claude 2021 Streaming VF

Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci)

Charles Wolf, the husband of a Sept. 11 victim who was an early critic of Feinberg’s administration of the fund, is played by Stanley Tucci in the movie. He’s a much bigger part of Feinberg’s story in the movie than he seems to have been in real life, and some adjustments have been made to make him a better foil for Feinberg. For starters, he’s moved up a few income brackets: We see him saying goodbye to his wife Katherine on the morning of Sept. 11 in a spacious apartment with a dining room, kitchen, and hardwood floors. The actual Wolf, according to an excellent Buffalo News profile, shared a studio apartment with his wife, featuring “old, gray carpet” they had planned to replace, something he still hadn’t gotten around to in 2015. This isn’t just a glow-up: the movie needs Wolf to be Feinberg’s peer, and it’s the first of several changes made to achieve that effect. In real life, Wolf was a former Kodak sales representative who had quit in the 1990s to become an Amway salesman. His wife was an executive assistant at Marsh & McLennan, a professional services firm with offices in the World Trade Center. The movie changes this to a fictional law firm, Kyle and MacAllen, and although it never says she’s not an executive assistant, Wolf describes working for them as her “dream job.” This sets up an emotional connection between Wolf and a fictional associate at Feinberg’s firm, whose plans to work at the same law firm were disrupted by the Sept. 11 attacks. Note: Former ‘Seinfeld,’ ‘SNL’ star Siobhan Fallon Hogan to film new movie

Wolf and his wife were both amateur opera singers, as mentioned in the film, but there’s no evidence he had any kind of fateful meeting with Feinberg at a 9/11 memorial concert. The event, too, is a composite: According to a sign on the door, they are attending “An Evening of Remembrance and Reflection,” a title used for an event at Lincoln Center in 2011. The music they see performed, however, is Lost Objects, which is not about 9/11 and was not staged in New York until 2004. The idea seems to be to evoke the first performance of John Adams’ “On the Transmigration of Souls,” which happened in 2002 (although the scene seems to be Sept. 6, 2003). The point of the scene, though, is not the music, but the pep talk Wolf gives Feinberg, telling him a long story about his futile attempts to save a historic bridge while serving on the city council in Ithaca. None of that seems to have happened: the Wolfs didn’t live in Ithaca, Charles Wolf does not seem to have held office there, and even Wolf’s involvement with the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation seems to be an invention, an easy shorthand to show he’s the kind of guy who writes angry letters.