Playing God

If you are old enough to remember the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers and Pentagon, you are probably familiar with attorney Ken Feinberg; even if you don’t instantly recognize his name. Feinberg was assigned as the Special Master of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (VCF), which he worked pro bono, as did his staff. The VCF was created so the families of the dead and still living victims could get compensation, but they had to agree not to sue the airline companies involved. Thus the questions Feinberg had to answer, which were the same ones posed to him at town hall meetings, were, “How can you put a value on someone’s life? What is life worth?” The Karin Jurschick directed documentary Playing God seeks to educate the public on Feinberg’s approach to determining the answers to those questions.

The first question you might ask is, “What makes him qualified for such a position?”. Feinberg has a long, storied, and impressive career that is briefly discussed in the film… He was one of three arbitrators to decide the value of the Zapruder film. He was also one of two to determine legal fee distribution in the Holocaust slave labor litigation. Finally, he served as the Special Settlement Master in the Agent Orange liability cases, the various diethylstilbestrol (DES) suits, and the asbestos claims, when those first cropped up.

“How can you put a value on someone’s life? What is life worth?”

Feinberg, contrary to the cold, clinical numbers man that many saw him as, comes across as someone full of life, humor, and a genuine desire to help the people that go to him for compensation/representation. His brother and business partner, David, recounts when they first started talks with the victims of the 9/11 attacks. While he could only stomach two meetings, as they were that harrowing, Ken talked to everyone. Ken claims to remember everyone he met during that time, and that claim is repeatedly substantiated. Feinberg openly discusses ways in which he believed he treated these people fairly and reflects on the many mistakes he made in those meetings.

One such blunder was when he told a dad whose son died in the attacks that he (Feinberg) knew how the dad felt. The person explained to him how condescending that sounded, as Feinberg has never had to bury his children. Feinberg opines on how that made him think and he realized he was wrong. Not every critic of his was as calm as the father mentioned above. A few of the interviewees such as Nancy Lee and her mom, Rosemary, feel it is blood money and seem to regret taking it. George Barisch is trying to convince Feinberg of the impact the BP oil spill had on the shrimp and fishing industries and views Feinberg as a hindrance. On the other hand, Debruce Nelson believes that Feinberg was a man of his word, and attributes his town’s employment upswing to him.

There isn’t much in the way of narrative cohesion, which is the movie’s biggest flaw. The first thing Feinberg talks about is why he loves listening to the opera after a long day’s work. This is before the viewer finds out what he does and why it is a big deal. That might have worked as a slow introduction and juxtaposition to the reveal of his job, if it weren’t undone by the sequence following said reveal. Monika Iken stares out a window; then we cut to her walking through the 9/11 memorial. This is accompanied by a voiceover of her asking how her firefighter husband who ran into the rubble, a decidedly heroic death, is worth less than the that of a hedge fund manager. She never gets over this notion. Given that we never cut back to her, making this the opening, since Iken asks all the same questions the audience has to start with, would set us up for a more substantive payoff when we come to understand Feinberg. Iken’s segment also encapsulates the movie’s central themes, which would have fostered a more immediate investment from the audience.

“…a timely, engaging examination of someone whose job is daunting, harrowing, and unenviable.”

As the film progresses, in mostly chronological order, regarding the cases he deals with, the primary thread becomes a proposed cut to pensions and disability for factory line workers. He was appointed as special counsel and has the legal power to approve or dismiss the company’s proposed cuts. Since the whole movie revolves around money, it is a logical way to keep things going; it even ends with some text about recent changes to such things Congress recently voted on.

While interesting in its own right, the plight of these workers does come across as small potatoes in comparison to the 9/11 and Agent Orange aftermath. This is most likely due to the length of the documentary, running a mere 95 minutes. At least two hours, maybe even three,  is required for everything to breathe right, and that is just the stuff the movie does focus on. Feinberg has been working in the field of mediation and alternative dispute resolution law for at least thirty years. During that time he has held some authority on the gravest tragedies the USA has witnessed. The documentary doesn’t even mention that Penn State hired him after the Sandusky scandal to dispense compensation to the victims and their families, nor that Volkswagen hired him for compensation duties after their emission snafu became huge news. How can you synthesize so much into so little time without losing some of the humanity and impact? You can’t.

Playing God is a timely, engaging examination of someone whose job is daunting, harrowing, and unenviable. Structural and length problems keep it from greatness, but Feinberg shines brightly through this, with a level head and a solid sense of self, making for an intriguing figure.

Playing God (2017) Directed by Jurschick. Starring Kenneth Feinberg, Monika Iken, George Barisch, David Feinberg, Nancy Lee, Debruce Nelson.

Grade: B

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