Susan Behrends Valenzuela
Amid a slew of shows, documentaries and movies memorializing the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, “Worth,” directed by Sara Colangelo, details the establishment of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund — a government-subsidized program created to provide economic reparations to those whose loved ones died or were injured in the attacks.
The film opens on a dark screen with the haunting sound of a roaring jet engine. It is the same sound Charles Wolf, the film’s main protagonist, heard from his apartment on Thompson Street 20 years ago.
“I’m a pilot, so I knew when I heard that sound that it was not normal,” Wolf told WSN. “I thought, why is the military doing passes over Manhattan? And then someone outside screamed.”
Wolf’s wife, Katherine Wolf, had begun working in the World Trade Center only two weeks earlier, and was among the nearly 3,000 people who died that day.
In the aftermath of the attack, the government established the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which aimed not only to provide monetary reparations for victims’ families, but also to prevent lawsuits against the airline companies involved — legal proceedings which would likely have gone on for decades.
Disappointed in the way the fund was being handled, Wolf created a website called Fix the Fund in which he outlined the program’s faults — for example, the offensively little sums allotted to victims under the “pain and suffering” category of the fund’s formula — and suggested alternate approaches. The website garnered a substantial following, and Wolf became a leader and spokesperson for the victims’ families. In 2015, he was contacted by Max Borenstein (the producer of “WORTH”) about telling his story, and a few months ago he watched himself, played by Stanley Tucci, on screen for the first time.
“You have no idea what that’s like,” Wolf said about seeing his story told in film. “I even missed my first appearance in the movie. I’m like, oh that’s me? That’s me! I mean it’s really crazy.”
Overall, Wolf was more than satisfied with the film’s portrayal of history. In fact, he said it is “possibly the best description of the victim compensation fund [he’s] ever seen.” Still, he admitted that authenticity was sometimes sacrificed for entertainment value.
“It’s not a documentary,” he said. “They have to dramatize. Did I actually hold meetings? No. Did I go to other people’s meetings and speak up? Yes.”
In this blend of fact and fiction, it is disappointing that only three of the film’s characters (Wolf, Ken Feinberg, and Camille Biros) are actual people. The rest — the victims whose stories supply the emotional meat of the script — are merely composite characters. In most cases, they do reflect authentic experiences, but the characters and their interactions are not as real as viewers may be led to believe.
In “Worth,” Wolf is depicted as the archetypal everyman hero. Stalwart and indefatigable, he believes that meaningful success is achieved by doing what is just rather than what is fair. In real life, Wolf is still that man — passionate and admirable — but he acknowledges that the film’s portrayal of his story leans heavily toward glorification. He was not — as an early scene depicts — speaking his mind at the fund’s first town hall meeting, and was instead still mired in grief and struggling to find his way forward alone.
“I didn’t go to any meeting until June of 2002,” he said. “I was too busy figuring out how I was going to live. I had no support.”
What “Worth” seems to omit is the reality of Wolf’s personal struggle — the imperfections along his hero’s journey. The support Wolf eventually amassed for the fund changed history, but he does not necessarily see his own contributions as monumental.
“Everything was needs- and conditions-based,” he said. “I saw a need and I filled it. Leaders don’t tear off their shirts like Clark Kent and become Superman — that’s not the way it works. It’s someone who’s not afraid to do something that needs to be done.”
Despite certain embellishments, there’s no doubt in Wolf’s mind that “Worth” is a valuable watch, particularly for younger generations who did not live through the events of Sept. 11.
“Students are here to learn, and this movie is a learning experience,” he said.
Wolf worries that young people are not being educated about what happened on that day and in the months and years that followed, in part because parents and educators struggle to talk about it. He hopes that his story, and the others told in “Worth,” will provide a window into the emotional and fiscal complexities that accompanied the establishment of the Victim Compensation Fund.
Twenty years after the attacks, it is easy to think about Sept. 11 simply as a date; a horrific yet isolated incident that changed national and global security forever. “Worth” succeeds at upending that narrative. The movie is an important reminder that the almost 3,000 lives lost were not just numbers, but also people. “Worth” forces viewers to confront the gut-wrenching reality that victims and their families faced, and asks audience members to ponder the fund’s central yet unresolvable question: What is life worth?
As for Wolf, he doesn’t think there’s a numerical answer.
“It’s impossible to put a number on a person,” he said. “You cannot value the worth of a life.”
“Worth” is available to stream now on Netflix.
Contact Sophie Mulgrew at [email protected]