Michael Keaton plays a lawyer tasked with putting a value on human life in Sara Colangelo’s post-9/11 drama.
Shortly after 9/11, the United States Congress passed a bill providing financial support to the families of victims in order to prevent them from suing the airline companies involved. But the victims ranged from janitors to CEOs of multi-national corporations, and in the eyes of the government and airline companies, those two lives were not worth the same amount of money.
Though the complication was seen as a too hard of a challenge by many lawyers, attorney Ken Feinberg took the case pro-bono. “What is life worth?” asks Feinberg (Michael Keaton) to a classroom of students in the opening scene of Sara Colangelo’s follow-up to The Kindergarten Teacher, premiered at Sundance in 2018.
It’s up to Feinberg and his team to place a monetary value on each victim, but from the first meeting it’s clear he doesn’t fully understand the pain the families are going through. On the other side there is Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci), a passionate man who lost his wife and wants to make sure that the compensation is fair for every family. He fights to make Feinberg recognise that there are people behind the numbers.
The most hard-hitting moments are when relatives of the victims open their hearts to these lawyers. Some of them don’t even care about the money – they just want their story heard. Colangelo frames them individually, emphasising how each one’s pain is unique no matter how much Feinberg tries to put them into the same box.
In one of the film’s most poignant moments, a gay man explains that he is not eligible for compensation because he and his partner were not legally together (his partner’s homophobic family also refuses to acknowledge their relationship). Unfortunately, even though the man’s case provides real emotional depth, he is never seen again. The film is filled with missed opportunities of plot points that might have been developed further.
Another is Shunori Ramanathan’s character Priya, an old student of Feinberg’s who graduated from Georgetown University and was supposed to begin work at an office in the World Trade Center a week after 9/11 happened. She joins Feinberg’s team to help the victims. It’s obvious that she is suffering more than the rest of the team, but what she is going through is never explored fully; her more understanding nature is merely used to juxtapose Feinberg’s lack of emotional awareness.
It’s been 19 years since 9/11; there have been many films about the event and there will be many more. Colangelo attempts to provide context to the ugly bureaucracy which compounded so many people’s pain years after the fact, but its dullness and a lack of empathy in its main character means it does not leave a lasting impression.
Published 27 Jan 2020
By Ed Gibbs
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