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On the surface, Netflix’s new film, Worth, is about the creation of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, a deal authorised by congress that offered payments to families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks in exchange for their agreement to not sue the airlines. But it’s not a straightforward retelling. Rather than provide a broad overview of the fund’s genesis, the film zeroes in on the story of two real-life characters: Kenneth Feinberg, the special master of the fund, and Charles Wolf, a 9/11 widow and vocal critic of the program.
Worth’s narrative thrust comes from these two men’s differing perspectives on the value of a life. For Feinberg, played masterfully by Michael Keaton, it’s about money. It has to be. His job is to figure out how much to pay each victim’s surviving loved ones. For Wolf, who gets an emotional embodiment from Stanley Tucci, it’s about justice. Wolf launches a website and organises a separate group that demands changes to the fund’s compensation structure. He challenges Feinberg to see beyond the numbers. Curiously, they find common ground in their mutual love of opera.
Here’s everything you might be wondering about the two men at the center of Worth’s true story.
Feinberg was born and raised just outside of Boston in Brockton, Massachusetts. His father, the son of eastern European immigrants, sold tires while his mother, a bookkeeper, looked after Feinberg and his two siblings. Feinberg originally wanted to be an actor but, at the behest of his father, but decided to go to law school in pursuit of a more stable career. After earning his J.D. from NYU in 1970, Feinberg worked as Senator Ted Kennedy’s Chief of Staff. To this day, he remains an adamant admirer of the Kennedys. He was the Chairman of the Board of Directors for the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation from when he was unanimously elected in 2009 until 2017.
Though he didn’t know it at the time, Feinberg’s fate as a victim’s compensation expert was sealed in 1983 when a connection from law school, Judge Jack Weinstein, asked him to stave off an impending class-action lawsuit from a group of Vietnam veterans. At issue was Agent Orange—a noxious herbicide that the U.S. government sprayed across the jungles of north Vietnam and that, 15 years later, was causing cancer and sarcoma in people that were exposed to it. Feinberg’s job was to broker a settlement between the veterans and the chemical manufacturers.
As an Esquire profile of Feinberg detailed, the gulf between the two parties was intimidatingly wide: “The veterans asked for $1.2 billion. The chemical companies made their counteroffer: $25,000, total.” But Feinberg pulled it off at the final hour. “The night before the case would go to trial, he somehow forged a miracle settlement,” wrote Esquire’s Chris Jones. “A fund that would eventually reach $250 million, a record at the time.”
Feinberg then set up his own law firm in Washington D.C.; on the side, he taught Intro to Torts at various law schools. He was on a train back to the capitol on the morning of September 11th, 2001, when multiple airplanes crashed into the twin towers and the pentagon.
Weeks later, after discovering that Congress had hastily created a September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, he asked Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam veteran who was then a Republican Senator from Nebraska, for an introduction to Attorney General John Ashcroft. Feinberg wanted to oversee the fund. Hagel made the call and Ashcroft appointed Feinberg the special master of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund without hesitation — mostly because no one else wanted the job.
In the twenty years since, Feinberg has gone on to monopolise the legal market he incidentally invented: the facilitation of compensation for victims of disasters. His small firm, The Feinberg Group, has devised payout programs for victims of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre, the Boston Marathon bombing, the Penn State sexual abuse scandal ,and the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting. Feinberg has also authored two books: 2005’s What Is Life Worth?: The Unprecedented Effort to Compensate the Victims of 9/11 and 2012’s Who Gets What: Fair Compensation after Tragedy and Financial Upheaval.
Now 75 years old, Feinberg hints at no plans of retiring. Just this past spring, his firm was selected to handle the half-billion dollar fund for families of the 346 individuals who were killed in the 2018 and 2019 crashes of the Boeing 737 Max airplanes. In the wake of COVID-19, he’s also begun lobbying for the creation of a national office of bereavement, telling NPR’s Scott Simon that, “it's long overdue that national policy take into account the long-term adverse impact of tragedy, both individual and collective.”
In interviews, he often claims to favor pragmatism and strategic thinking, but others that are close to him, like his wife Dede and his business partner Camille Biros, say his compassion and his capacity for empathy have grown as a result of the decades he’s spent navigating the highly charged and emotional terrain of a disaster’s aftermath. In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Feinberg looked back in awe at his unique and unlikely career. It’s certainly not what law school prepared him for, Feinberg said. A degree in Psychology or Divinity, he admits, would’ve been better.
Wolf was born in Buffalo, New York, but was raised in Indiana after his family relocated. He returned to the Northeast to attend the Rochester Institute of Technology and, after college, moved to Manhattan. He worked for 14 years as a sales rep for Kodak, before leaving to launch a direct-sales business through Amway. A passionate singer, he joined the Village Light Opera Group.
Life changed for Wolf when he met his future wife Katherine in 1988. She was a classically trained pianist from Wales and an accompanist for the Philbeach Society, an amateur opera group in London. They originally linked when the Philbeach Society staged a joint production with the Village Light Opera Group at St. Joseph’s Church on Sixth Avenue. “Who is that woman? I’ve got to get to know her!,” Charles recalled saying on the night they were introduced. A year later they were married in Katherine’s native Wales.
12 years later, when Katherine was 40, she was killed in the 9/11 attacks. She had just started a new job as an executive assistant within the financial services firm Marsh & McClennan and the company’s offices were on the 97th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower. Katherine’s job technically started at 9 a.m. but her boss had recently asked her to come in at 8:30 a.m. instead. When the first plane struck the north tower at 8:46 AM, Katherine had just settled into her desk.
Wolf was in his apartment, less than a mile away, when he heard the boom. He rushed outside and saw plumes of smoke filling the downtown skyline. By the time the second tower fell, he knew he would never see his wife again. According to a profile in the Buffalo News, three days later, during a meeting for the families of those employed by Marsh & McClennan, Wolf stood up and turned to the others in the room and explained that their loved ones were almost certainly killed instantly. “As far as I’m concerned,” he said, “our people were vaporised.”
That meeting ignited Wolf’s spirit for organising. He quickly involved himself in efforts related to 9/11 survivor’s rights, starting with his campaign to reform the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. His first demand was to extend the timeframe people had to seek medical treatment after the attack in order to qualify for compensation. Thanks to his initial efforts, the period increased from 24 hours to 96 hours, but as the film Worth details, his fight against the fund grew much wider in scope.
After giving the fund his seal of approval and agreeing to join its ranks, Wolf continued his advocacy work on behalf of families of victims of the 9/11 attacks. Years later, when a utilities truck sucked a skeleton out of a manhole near the crash site, Wolf asked then-mayor Bloomberg to restart the search for remains. He provided guidance on the redevelopment of the Ground Zero site and has acted as an ongoing spokesperson for family members of victims during meetings with senators, presidents, and foreign officials.
As recently as 2016, Wolf still lived in the apartment he shared with Katherine. Every so often he visits the 9/11 memorial on Greenwich Street. Each time he does, he revealed to AM New York, he bends over the wall and kisses Katherine’s name. Etched in bronze, it’s the very first name listed under the memorial’s dedication plaque.
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