Monday, 24 April 2017

PLAYING GOD - Review By Greg Klymkiw - 2017 HotDocsHotPick - Ambulance Chaser as GOD

Ken Feinberg assessed value of 9/11 victims.
Playing God (2017)
Dir. Karin Jurschick
Starring: Ken Feinberg

Review By Greg Klymkiw

It's a dirty, dirty job, but someone's got to do it. When tragedy strikes, when a wrong must be righted, when you need someone to assess the value of a human life, not just any ambulance chaser will do. The American Government's learned counsel of choice is none other than "Special Master", Attorney Ken Feinberg. Karin Jurschick's well crafted documentary Playing God provides a compelling, journalistically-well-balanced portrait of the man who presided over the granting of compensation to victims of government cutbacks to pensions, Agent Orange, the BP oil spill and most notably, the 9/11 tragedy.

From start to finish of the film, Feinberg proves to be a straight-shooter with flair. The camera loves him. This is not lost on Jurschick. There is a sequence early on wherein she has her camera in just the right spot upon him in a nicely-framed shot of his upper torso as he sits in his office and explains the facts of life.

"If you get hit by an automobile, if you fall off a ladder, if you eat poison food, if you trip on a sidewalk," he says, and then, with the flourish of a dramatic pause and the tell-tale symbolic physical gesture of rubbing of his forefinger, middle finger and thumb together, he declares:


He continues:

"We will rectify the wrong by having the guilty party, the tort-feasor, pay the victim."

But, according to Feinberg, there's a simple (albeit harsh) reality to all this. "Now, if it's a stockbroker, or a banker who fell on the sidewalk, you're going to pay a lot more than if the person who fell was a waiter or a soldier or a policeman or a fireman."

And it's here where Jurschick displays her flair, as a filmmaker.

Feinberg buttons his speech with this declaration:

"That's the way the system works."

Here there's a breathtaking cut from the office window. The sound of a whoosh and roar overtakes the shot as an airplane passes by, followed by the sound of a sickening impact as we get another breathtaking cut into the maw of 9/11 Hell.

Wham! This is powerful stuff. We're not dealing with just anyone slipping on a sidewalk, we're dealing with the families of those who lost loved ones when terrorists slammed planes into the Twin Towers, Vietnam veterans suffering from the cancer-causing properties of Agent Orange, fishermen's livelihoods ruined by BP's scumbaggery, and the list, goes on. And on.

However, Jurschick doesn't utilize her considerable craft simply to take the wind out of Feinberg, but rather the cold, hard-hearted truth of the "system". Her film doesn't let him off the hook, but it doesn't tar and feather the dude either. She gives us as full a portrait as would be humanly possible, given what it is that Feinberg does for a living. Her style isn't as insanely intense as that to which someone like Errol (The Fog of War) Morris might have brought to bear on the subject, but her voice, though occasionally a wee bit too balanced for my taste is still very clear and definitely all her own. She transcends the pitfalls of so many documentaries that eschew film art in favour of journalism and this is to be celebrated.

Yes, there is balance here, but it ultimately serves the film, the subject and the audience. She gives us a unique opportunity to know and understand this extraordinary individual.

Tellingly, we learn that Feinberg wanted to be an actor, but that he took his father's sage advice to take his passion into something more practical. Hence, law. We also experience a cultured, intelligent, erudite human being who is also filled with deep compassion. This takes some doing since Jurschick's film applies equal balance in presenting a series of harrowing points-of-view from a wide variety of victims. Feinberg is charged with assessing the "value" of their suffering, the value of their very lives and/or those whom they have lost.

We see a man who, on one hand, must figure out the precise amount to "award" corporate pigs in the bank bailouts and, on the other, determine if the government has a legal right to severely cut the pensions of simple working people.

Yes, it's a dirty, dirty job, but Playing God is ultimately all about humanity - on both sides of the coin, and most of all, what resides within each side - no matter how slender or thick the coin actually is.


Playing God enjoys its World Premiere at Hot Docs 2017.