Synopsis – An attorney in Washington D.C. battles against cynicism, bureaucracy and politics to help the victims of 9/11.
My Take – Two decades ago, specifically one of the most horrifying days in history – September 11, 2001, the whole world stood disgusted and shocked by the unfathomable acts of terrorism that took place on American soil.
A devastating and lingering wound that over the years became a subject of various feature and TV productions ranging from the culmination to aftermath in dramatic retellings of since debunked thrillers and some complicated insights into the fallout.
However, this latest drama from director Sara Colangelo (The Kindergarten Teacher) and writer Max Borenstein (Godzilla vs. Kong), which premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival and has now received a quite Netflix release, doesn’t focus on the events of that particular day, but instead sets its premise around the families and loved ones of the victims who were left behind to deal with their incomprehensible loss.
Based on the 2005 memoir ‘What Is Life Worth?’ by lawyer Ken Feinstein, here, director Colangelo examines the process through the prism of a lawyer who had to answer the perplexing question – what is the value of a human life? Though everyone would like to agree that a person’s life cannot be valued in terms of money, but that’s exactly what Feinstein was tasked with, to work out the monetary compensation that the families of victims of the 9/11 attacks should receive from a United States government fund.
Arriving almost exactly on the 20-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the subject matter is expectedly heavy, but backed by excellent performances and intelligent writing, the resulting film is brutally moving and intriguing tale that tackles its somber material without ever getting over-sentimental.
Despite being a good film that treats its subject matter with the respect it deserves, it’s just not going to be remembered as one of the best of the year or as anything bold or innovative. Ultimately, however, the film acknowledges that its plot is not just reenacted subject matter, but it honors 2,996 individual people, each with a name and story that will live on forever.
The story follows Ken Feinberg (Michael Keaton), a lawyer, who seeing as a way to serve his country, interviews with Attorney General John Ashcroft (Victor Slezak) and lands the pro bono job of being special master to oversee the 9/11 fund set up by the government to compensate the families of the victims. A fund which was set up mainly because the Bush administration was worried that if thousands of these people would sue the airlines whose planes were used, it would bankrupt the US airline industry, and cripple the federal economy.
But Feinstein is convinced that the fund is a good idea for the families, as the alternative of litigation would see them wait years to receive any money, and as an expert on calculating compensation values for human life due to their experience in handling asbestos and agent orange cases, he and his firm’s head of operations Camille Biros (Amy Ryan) assemble a team of lawyers to devise a formula that’ll arrive at a payout for victims.
A statistical formula which works out how much each family should receive based on the income of the victims. However, the formula goes down terribly with all the family members, especially Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci), a community organizer who lost his wife in the attacks. With a deadline of December 2003 for 80 percent of eligible recipients to file their claim, Feinberg slowly starts to realize just how difficult the job is.
Here, director Colangelo uses a conventionally structured arc and makes the legal aspects of the story understandable, and ensures the full horror of the tragedy is represented. The film builds its case steadily, gently grappling with life and death, value and money. Sure, it doesn’t go as deeply as it could into the moral implications of the entire enterprise, the film remains attuned to the many soulful dimensions of the story and finds nuance in Feinberg and Wolf’s thoughtful exchanges.
Where the film especially succeeds is in its raw accounts of the last communications of those trapped in the towers and in the depictions of the complex lives of the survivors.
Director Colangelo nicely orchestrates a lot of moving parts here, including Ken’s arc, the multiple players trying to influence his decisions and a handful of victims’ stories, including a grieving widow whose late husband harbored a devastating secret to a gay man who stands to get nothing because he and his partner weren’t married.
These individual stories are told with genuine emotional weight, each character actor bringing their all to these all-too-real accounts. By taking the real experiences of the claimants of the 9/11 relief fund and interspersing them through the debates of formulae and legalese, the pain of those weeks and months in the aftermath of the attacks resurfaces all too easily.
Whether or not it went down like that for Feinberg in real life doesn’t really matter, because the film cultivates a little optimism and hope that people are still capable of doing the right thing, even if it’s at the last possible minute. It’s never just about Ken and his internal struggle, but instead addresses how a person of influence can wield power ethically and responsibly.
But it is Michael Keaton’s deep and realistic performance, as a man who is trying hard to do the right thing the wrong way that elevates the film from a legal outing into a touching drama. Like many of his best roles, it’s a subtly smart performance resistant to the film’s inclinations to sentimentality. Stanley Tucci delivers yet again another exceptional performance as Charles Wolf, a survivor who begins as Feinberg’s biggest critic and eventually becomes key in Feinberg finally connecting with the needs of the families he’s trying to help. Some of the best scenes in the film are between Keaton and Tucci.
Amy Ryan is also quite powerful in her role. The empathy she subtly shows toward the victims as they tell their terrible, heart-wrenching stories of talking to their loved ones moments before they died feels incredibly authentic and genuinely moving. In supporting roles, Tate Donovan, Shunori Ramanathan, Laura Benanti, Andy Schneeflock, Talia Balsam, Marc Maron, Chris Tardio, Ato Blankson-Wood, Carolyn Mignini and Victor Slezak are also superb. On the whole, ‘Worth’ is a heart-wrenching and insightful drama that is highly watchable, nicely acted and restrained in its poignancy.
Directed – Sara Colangelo
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 118 minutes