Review: In ‘Worth’, weighing the personal losses of September 11
“Worth,” a Netflix release starring Michael Keaton, Amy Ryan and Stanley Tucci is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America. (photo AP)
“What is life worth? Asks Washington attorney Kenneth J. Feinberg (Michael Keaton) in the opening scenes of the true story-based drama “Worth,” while writing the question on a chalkboard for a room full of law students.
For Feinberg, this is not a trick or moral question. It’s a calculation. There are legal parameters and predictions of future earning power that dictate the answer.
“The answer is a number,” he says. “And that’s the job”
In Sara Colangelo’s “Worth,” which hits Netflix Friday, Feinberg’s formulas are dramatically tested in an extraordinary tragedy. After September 11, Feinberg was among those brought to Washington to advise on compensation for the families of the victims. The idea is that Congress, for the first time, should create a fund for affected families. This is done in part out of heartfelt compassion for a horrific loss – “a government sponsored charity” as it is called – and in part to avoid an avalanche of civil lawsuits that could cripple the airline industry. It is national mourning plus commercial interests.
And it is this collision that Colangelo cleverly exploits in “Worth,” a grim proceeding over the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund that details the complicated damage that results when government bureaucracy encounters human lives that are not so well. calculated.
The film is based on Feinberg’s own thoughtful account of his experience, his 2005 book “What Is Life Worth?” Seeing a way to serve his country, Feinberg, a mediator who had resolved the Agent Orange class action lawsuit, accepted the post on a volunteer basis, knowing full well that weighing the value of janitors alongside CEOs would be a thankless task. In “Worth,” he receives a grateful call from President George W. Bush, who says he would not wish the job on his worst enemy.
Feinberg has two years to figure out who deserves what – a daunting task given that his staff start without a simple list of victims. I doubt that many in the 9/11 aftershocks were following the fund closely, or that more would think his administration would make a compelling film. When September 11 hit theaters, audiences didn’t often follow. Not quite accurate thrillers (“Zero Dark Thirty”) have garnered more attention than denser narratives that run through complicated aftermath (“The Report”).
But arriving almost exactly on the 20th anniversary of September 11, “Worth” is a well-performed humanistic film that takes a humble path to historical trauma. Capturing how individual lives are shaped, warped, and perhaps manage to squeeze something good out of a dehumanizing bureaucracy may not seem like the purview of the films. (Although one of the great films, Akira Kurosawa’s “To Live,” does just that.) Still, “Worth” builds its record steadily, struggling gently with life and death, value and money in America. He doesn’t go as deep as he could into the moral implications of the whole business. But Colangelo (“The Kindergarten Teacher”) and screenwriter Max Borenstein (who wrote most of the recent “Godzilla” movies) are tuned in to the many moving dimensions of the story.
Feinberg’s main opponent is Charlie Wolf (Stanley Tucci), a widower who strongly disagrees with Feinberg’s calculations. But everything that comes to Feinberg is an argument, in one form or another, that families don’t match formulas. Her goal of bringing an objective clinical calculation to inherently personal and emotional losses is gradually eroded by the many family members who fight their way through her door, including the widow of a Staten Island firefighter (Laura Benanti, formidable). Earlier than their boss, members of Feinberg’s legal team – Amy Ryan and the particularly good Shunori Ramanathan – come to the conclusion that nothing about death and grief can be impersonal.
But as good as the supporting cast is, Keaton keeps the film together. Like many of his best roles, it’s a subtly intelligent performance that resists the film’s penchant for sentimentality. Perhaps a story about the victims of 9/11 shouldn’t focus on a lawyer handing out the money. But Keaton – a truly great actor in his responsiveness to those around him – makes a compelling listener, initially deaf to the stories that filter through “Worth.”
“Worth,” a version of Netflix, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for certain strong linguistic and thematic elements. Duration: 118 minutes. Three out of four stars.