What is life worth? Who gets to decide? Most of us prefer not to think about it. For a few of us, mostly lawyers, insurers, and those in government, it is their job. I had that job for a while when I was in the government, looking at questions like: “Should we prohibit a particular pesticide if it will reduce the incidence of cancer by two people every year but increase the price of a bushel of berries by $1.00?” Law and society have been very inconsistent, spending far more in emergencies than on prevention.
Lawyer Ken Feinberg has made the job of assigning monetary value to human life his career. He comes into the most traumatic and tragic cases of incalculable loss, Agent Orange, asbestos, the financial meltdown, and tries to decide how much money to pay to compensate the injured and the survivors. Twenty years ago, it was Feinberg and his colleague Camille Biros who were called upon to determine how much money would be paid by the taxpayers to the families of those killed or injured on 9/11. Feinberg’s book about these cases has been turned into a film, with Michael Keaton as Feinberg, Amy Ryan as Biros, and Stanley Tucci as Charles G. Wolf, who challenged the original settlement proposal.
The film takes some dramatic license with the real story but it is all in service of making the abstract issues real, concrete, and meaningful, as well as protecting the privacy of some of the people involved. We first see Feinberg as a man of integrity and culture (he really loves opera, but not the new-fangled stuff), a bit formal and old-fashioned. He does not use a computer and he dictates a note to one of his children, emphasizing the importance of being on time, that until the “love, Dad” signature could be a letter to opposing counsel. But he skillfully negotiates himself into the position of Special Master with three disarming points. He foregoes any payment. He mentions that no one else wants the job. And he points out that if he fails, the Republicans can blame him for being a Democrat.
The dollar amount is not intended to compensate the families for their grief or for…