Doc tracks the ‘Master of Disaster’ Ken Feinberg as he assigns compensation to the victims of 9/11 and other tragedies

Playing God

Dir. Karin Jurschick, Germany/Netherlands, 2017, 95 mins.

Money answereth all things, according to Solomon. Lawyer Ken Feinberg has been called a modern-day version of the Biblical king: he assigns cash compensation in a highly-litigious country for impossible tragedies ranging from Sandy Hook to Agent Orange to the BP Oil Spill, the Boston marathon bombing and the event which haunts him still – 9/11. Using a set of clearly-defined mathematical calculations, this court-appointed “special master” puts a dollar value on hardship, disease and, ultimately, life.

“There’s not much that’s fair giving money to people who have lost loved ones,” acknowledges Feinberg. “But it’s the American system.”

German documentarian Karin Jurschick (2012’s On The Trail of Evil) tracks the ‘Master of Disaster’ as he runs the numbers, and she’s certainly helped by Feinberg’s large personality, his Boston-accented clear-spoken manner, and his frank ability to see all sides of his story. Victims and relatives of the deceased may have a hard time accepting their supposed “value” when Feinberg pays out from the funds set up for compensation, but he’s honourable when it comes to explaining it to them.

Playing God is a complicated piece, but together, Feinberg and Jurschick cut through it with precision, making Playing God suitable for US audiences which responded to last year’s Herbalife doc, Betting On Zero. Overseas, viewers might find the whole concept of placing a dollar-value-on-death too problematic, but as Feinberg points out, he’s replicating what a jury might typically do, only faster. Festival audiences could find this tempting, especially if Feinberg is persuaded to accompany screenings, as he did for its Hot Docs world premiere, but VOD is its most likely home.

Playing God is nicely shot and framed, a cut above the norm thanks to DoP Timm Lange’s careful work, making Feinberg’s story visually interesting as the film rattles through disaster after disaster. Seen flying around to Town Hall meetings in a private jet, Feinberg’s job illustrates some of the conflicts of capitalism. He’s not afraid of confrontation, or of dealing with distraught, angry, grieving people. He sticks to his remit, modelling numbers to award compensation while trying to be fair. Yet his cash can come with conditions, as he acknowledges, such as an undertaking not to ever litigate in future. 

While he worked pro bono on the 7,300 applications for relief, including undocumented families, and paid out $7bn in the wake of 9/11, he himself was paid by BP to administer its $2bn fund in the wake of the Florida oil spin, which has led to criticism.

To a grieving family, the idea that the life of a fireman or a police officer may be worth less than a stockbroker or a CEO can be added salt in a festering wound. “There’s not much that’s fair giving money to people who have lost loved ones,” acknowledges Feinberg. “But it’s the American system.”

Formerly Chief of Staff to Ted Kennedy, Feinberg started specialising in this line of work during the Agent Orange scandal after the Vietnam War and it’s a career that has taken the Washington-based lawyer all the way through to curbing executive compensation in bailed-out banks when he was made Special Master for Executive Compensation by the US Treasury in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. (“What I did was a sideshow…populist revenge,” he says.)

Feinberg comes across as a fair-minded man, whether viewers believe the processes documented to be acceptable or not. He acknoweldges that he never makes things better for those afflicted. “Happy doesn’t come into it,” he explains. Playing God affords us the opportunity of seeing him try in the face of such Solomon-sized tasks.

Production companies: Bildersturm, Filmproduktion GmbH

International sales: Films Transit International

Producers: Birgit Schulz

Screenplay: Karin Jurschick, Birgit Schulz

Cinematography: Timm Lange

Editor: Anika Simon

Music: Han Otten

Featuring: Ken Feinberg