What is life worth?
Law professor Ken Feinberg (Michael Keaton) asks his students this question in the opening moments of WORTH (2021), a new movie by director Sara Colangelo now available on Netflix which chronicles Feinberg’s efforts to roll out the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund in order to support the families who lost loved ones on that horrific day.
Feinberg answers his own question, telling his students that they are not philosophers but lawyers, and as such, the question has an answer, and it’s a number. And it will be their jobs to determine what that number is in terms of monetary compensation.
So, shortly after the horrific events of September 11, Feinberg believes that with his experience he is uniquely qualified to help the government come up with a formula to pay the families of the victims who lost their lives that day. The Bush administration agrees and hands him the impossible task of seeing that this job gets done. Feinberg has long taught that fair doesn’t exist, so he comes up with a formula that pays victims’ families based on what they earned, and so the family of a CEO will get more than a family of a janitor or of a first responder. Obviously, among the victims’ families, this causes an uproar, the cry being why isn’t my loved one’s life worth the same as someone else’s?
Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci) who lost his wife on that day, tells Feinberg that his wife is not a statistic and that he finds everything about Feinberg’s formula to be offensive. He also tells Feinberg that the only reason he is doing this is that the government is trying to prevent these people from suing for larger amounts of money. In fact, Wolf points out, that immediately after 9/11 the government changed the law so the victims couldn’t sue the airlines. His point is that Feinberg doesn’t represent what is best for these people, and if he wants to be able to do that, he’s going to have to get to know who they are, listen to their stories, and change his formula.
This is not an easy thing for Feinberg to do, as he has the emotional range of Mr. Spock, but he is a good man who wants to do right by these people, and so he sets out to learn more about them and try his best to make the fund something that they will sign onto.
And that’s the story told in WORTH (2021). As stories go, it’s surprisingly subdued considering the subject matter. The most moving scenes in the film are the testimonies of the victims’ families as they tell their loved ones’ stories, often describing their final harrowing moments. Attorneys on Feinberg’s legal team, Camille Biros (Amy Ryan) and Priya Khundi (Shunori Ramanathan) definitely feel the pain of these families and struggle with the task at hand, but Feinberg does not, and so as a character he’s difficult to warm up to.
Other than Stanley Tucci’s Charles Wolf, there are not many characters in this film who are all that interesting. As such, WORTH works best as a generalized telling of these events which is one of the reasons why it is strangely subdued. The film almost embodies Feinberg’s stoic personality.
Michael Keaton as he always does delivers the goods as Ken Feinberg. He does a terrific job making the audience understand how this man thinks, and so even though he is largely misunderstood throughout the movie by the victims’ families, the audience gets that he means well but that he simply can’t figure out how to get through to these families. In short, he really does want to help the families, he really believes that this money will help them, but his formula turns off and insults so many people he can’t see how to move forward. Eventually, he does, but it takes a while, and Keaton makes Feinberg’s personal journey believable.
Stanley Tucci however steals the movie with a fantastic performance as Charles Wolf, the man who calls himself Feinberg’s harshest critic yet wants Feinberg to “fix the fund” and do right by the families. In other words, he disagrees with the Feinberg’s formula, but he doesn’t want Feinberg to fail. All of Tucci’s scenes are the best in the movie.
I also enjoyed Amy Ryan as attorney Camille Biros and Shunori Ramanathan as attorney Priya Khundi. Their characters are easier to relate to than Feinberg. And Tate Donovan is also very good as cynical attorney Lee Quinn who represents an opposing view from Feinberg’s.
Director Sara Colangelo succeeds in making a movie that tackles an intriguing and emotional topic, the paying of reparations to the families of the victims of 9/11, and she does it in a way that is far less emotional than expected. On the one hand, this is a good thing, because the film works best as a chronicle of these events and doesn’t try to sensationalize them. But on the other hand, the story comes off as so subdued it feels like an ordinary telling of a tale that perhaps needed to be a bit more extraordinary.
Max Borenstein wrote the competent screenplay. It does what it sets out to do, inform the audience of the events which led to the creation of the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund, and it does it in a low key way that keeps things real. This surprised me because Borenstein also wrote the screenplays to GODZILLA (2014). KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017), and GODZILLA VS. KONG (2021). While these three movies have their fans, I’m not one of them, and I love giant monster movies! But not these. They certainly could have used some of the realistic writing which Borenstein employs here with WORTH, which has a far better screenplay than the ones in those silly giant monster flicks.
WORTH is not the kind of movie that will wow you or blow you away. It has a story to tell, and it goes ahead and tells it.
It may come without fanfare, but at the end of the day, it’s worth a look.