Worth true story: how accurate is Netflix’s film exploring 9/11 aftermath?

The new film stars Michael Keaton as the lawyer placed in charge of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.

WORTH (2021)

With the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approaching, it’s likely that in the coming weeks we’ll see a number of films and documentaries paying tribute to the thousands who lost their lives on that tragic day in New York.

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One of those films is Worth, which arrives on Netflix this week and tells the true story of lawyer Kenneth Feinberg, who was appointed by Congress to oversee the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which allocated financial resources to the victims of the tragedy.

The film boasts excellent performances from Michael Keaton as Feinberg and Stanley Tucci as Charles Wolf, a widower and activist who led Fix The Fund – a protest group attempting to ensure a fair payout for the families of all victims. But how closely does it stick to the truth?

The screenplay for the film was written by Max Borenstein, adapted from Weinberg’s own memoir What Is Life Worth?, and while it appears the script sticks fairly closely to the truth, the individual victims that appear in the film are composites – in other words, they are based on a range of people rather than specific individuals.

Writing in the press notes for the film, Borenstein explained: “Like many, I was aware of the Victim Compensation Fund as it was unfolding, but that corner of the 9/11 story wasn’t one I knew much about until I started digging into Ken’s book, which I found wonderful, insofar as it related these stories of the victims and the specificity and the complexity of each of their cases.”

He added, “The victims depicted, however — with the exception of Charles Wolf — are composites from several stories that Ken has outlined in his book or told over the years. This was a deliberate choice on our part to protect people’s privacy. The special form of grief and pain — the complex emotions that each case brought up, and the dilemmas it raised for Ken — are all true.

“I sought to write a story of people trying to grieve, move on, and heal while admitting to and living in their flaws. Ken Feinberg was someone who perhaps, prior to 9/11, never really dealt firsthand with the flesh-and-blood victims of the large court cases that he’d been involved in. He came in with a pragmatic, legalistic approach to something that was still very raw. He had to learn. He wasn’t perfect at it, but it was his flaws that made his evolution that much richer.”

As is shown in the film, Feinberg was a respected attorney and former chief of staff for U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy who was appointed as the Special Master of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund by Attorney General John Ashcroft, despite his Democrat political leanings. It’s also true that Feinberg insisted he took on the role for free, agreeing to work pro bono for 33 months.

On being appointed to the role, Feinberg developed an eight point plan, which included the drawing up of a formula to determine how much money each individual victim was entitled to, taking into account factors such as income and likely future earnings.

It’s also accurate that there was initially a great deal of pushback against Feinberg’s plan. Indeed in the aforementioned memoir, Feinberg recalls being told “I spit on you, and your children” by a firefighter who was particularly upset by the perceived unfairness of the compensation formula, while Charles Wolf, who led up the Fix the Fund group, even referred to him as “patronising, manipulative and at times, even cruel” on the group’s website.

However as shown in the film, Wolf and Feinberg eventually found common ground, with Wolf then persuading the other members of his campaign group to accept the compensation being offered and sign up to the fund.

In a letter to Feinberg addressed 17th November 2003, Wolf wrote, “After a recent meeting where I personally reviewed every document to be submitted, I directed my attorney, Justin Green of Kreindler and Kreindler, to submit the initial papers for my application to the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund of 2001.  I feel this is a significant moment, both for me and for you.

“For me, it is the beginning of the end of a mourning period that has been all too long.  Whereas the majority of after-death affairs in a normal death are usually wrapped up within a few months where the family lawyer handles any probate matters held over, this situation is now past two years, two months old and still going.  But more significantly is my feeling that my case, along with those of each of the other families, will be given fair consideration.  I have faith that you and your staff will listen and look at Katherine’s and my individual circumstances and render an award that will put a fair value on what would have been her contribution to our aborted life together.  I also feel you will be sensitive to both her and my pain.

“For you, this must be a gratifying moment: to have one of your sharpest critics follow through on a promise and not only join the program he was criticizing, but promote it to his peers, says a lot about you and the way you have adjusted both the program and your attitude.  Today, I have complete faith in you.”

As reported by Wales Online, Wolf has himself now seen the film and given it his stamp of approval – although he says that keeping his wife’s memory alive is more important to him than the portrayal of him in the film.

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Worth is released on Netflix on Friday 3rd September 2021. Looking for something else to watch? Check out our guide to the best TV series on Netflix and best movies on Netflix, or visit our TV Guide.