Producers: Max Borenstein, Marc Butan, Bard Dorros, Anthony Katagas, Michael Keaton, Sean Sorensen and Michael Sugar Director: Sara Colangelo Screenplay: Max Borenstein Cast: Michael Keaton, Stanley Tucci, Amy Ryan, Shunori Ramanthan, Tate Donovan, Talia Balsam, Laura Benanti, Marc Maron, Chris Tardio and Victor Slezak Distributor: Netflix
A number-crunching lawyer learns the value of human empathy in Sara Colangelo’s fact-based drama about Kenneth Feinberg’s work to steer the congressionally-created Victims Compensation Fund to a successful conclusion in the two years following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
The script by Max Borenstein, inspired by Feinberg’s 2006 book “What Is Life Worth? The Unprecedented Effort of Compensate the Victims of 9/11,” begins with an establishing sequence showing Feinberg (played with gruff authority that gradually turns into tremulous uncertainty by Michael Keaton) conducting an exercise in a law school class to demonstrate how the determination of payment to the victim of an accident is a mathematical calculation based on that person’s age and earning potential. So when the planes strike the World Trade Center—an event he witnesses in the distance from a commuter train—he takes his expertise to the Bush administration, offering to serve pro bono as Special Master in the allocation of the funds allocated by the government for survivors and victims’ families.
Feinberg and his staff, including the fine Amy Ryan and Shunori Ramanthan as Camille Biros and Priya Khundi respectively, proceed to assemble data to present to their “clients,” but his cut-and-dried, know-it-all attitude provokes an immediate backlash, which coalesces around a “Fix the Fund” campaign orchestrated by Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci), the widowed husband of one of the dead. Calm, articulate but insistent in Tucci’s measured turn, Wolf prods Feinberg toward an ultimate realization that a dispassionate, impersonal application of formulas and figures will never attract substantial numbers of potential recipients to sign on,
The firm’s efforts are further complicated by the insistence that the interests of the powerful—particularly the airline lobby, which demands to be shielded from lawsuits that could cripple the industry (and, administration officials add, the national economy as a whole) be protected. Those forces are represented here not so much by characters like Attorney General John Ashcroft (Victor Slezak), though he’s clearly concerned with the lobbyists’ demands, as by slick lawyer Lee Quinn (Tate Donovan), who’s depicted as a fellow who’s learned from Feinberg’s methods and tempts him to join forces to resolve the entire situation by isolating the “troublemakers.”
But it proves impossible for the team to set aside the human dimension of their work. Some prospective recipients—those of modest means—are grateful for relatively lean offers they receive, but others, like fireman Frank Donato (Chris Tardio), whose brother died in the building collapse, protest at the valuation of some lives over others. The gay partner of a man whose bigoted parents refuse even to recognize his bereavement, let alone his eligibility for compensation, begs for aid. Most of the individual conferences are handled by his staff, but Feinberg himself is accidentally drawn into the Donato case when he receives information that the dead man also left children by a mistress his wife Karen (Laura Benanti) didn’t know about—a secret Frank wants to keep from her from learning.
The emphasis on such specific cases—fictionalizations for the most part—as well as footage of the 9/11 catastrophe, intermittent testimony from victims’ family members, occasional conversations with Wolf (with whom Feinberg shares a love of opera), and allusions to how the Fund had to be revised as recognition of the long-term effects of exposure to the site became clear—is designed to explain the film’s portrait of Feinberg as a man who grows from a pencil-pushing calculator to an emphatic human being (a point Wolf makes clear when he describes him as being different from Quinn, and urges his followers to trust him).
But there’s a stiffness and artificiality to these elements of the picture that dilute their effectiveness. That feeling is accentuated by the structural device Borenstein and Colangelo have chosen for the picture—a “count-down clock” series of intertitles that indicate how many months or days are left before the deadline for potential recipients to sign their agreements. This makes the narrative less a human document than a thriller about whether Feinberg’s transformation will occur in time to make a difference in his success as an arbitrator.
Still, “Worth” is a sincere if somewhat clumsy attempt to confront a terrible episode in American history, acknowledging the grief and resilience people demonstrated in a fashion befitting its appearance just as the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 approaches. Keaton continues his career renaissance with a strong performance, Tucci is restrained but intense, and the remainder of the cast is good although some tend to overemote. The technical work–Pepe Avila del Pino’s cinematography, Tommaso Ortino’s production design, Olivia Peebles’ set decoration, Mirren Gordon-Crozier’s costumes and Julia Bloch’s editing, as well as Nico Muhly’s score—are all carefully calibrated.
“Worth” is hardly without value, but it leaves you with a nagging feeling that it should be much more emotionally wrenching than it is.