Oil spills, asbestos, Agent Orange and every kind of shooting you don’t have to imagine (ranging from Sandy Hook Elementary School to Orlando’s Pulse): If there’s an American disaster encouraged by its foundational organizations, be they the military or private corporations and their lobbyists, you may be entitled to Kenneth Feinberg’s expertise. The lawyer made his name in the field of settlements, which made him uniquely qualified to determine how much money to give to the families of 9/11 victims so they wouldn’t sue the airlines. Worth is dependent on an arc of pathos and empathy overcoming this off-putting premise, then stuffs its emotionally devastating content into a procedural structure and box-checking script that’s every bit as impersonal as its initial calculations.
On its face, the drama depicts an ideological battle between Kenneth Feinberg (Michael Keaton) and his firm—which includes partner Camille Biros (Amy Ryan) and newbie Priya Khundi (Shunori Ramanathan), who barely avoided starting a new job in the north tower—and Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci) and his grassroots organization Fix the Fund. Pull back a bit from this battle and you see the larger, broader war against the American people waged by the upper crust. The point of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, created by the Air Transportation Safety and System Stabilization Act, was to pay people while ostensibly preventing an economic crash. Max Borenstein’s screenplay raises and drops points along the way that many deaths occurred, perhaps, in part due to negligent leadership and faulty equipment. Even if—over the course of Worth’s tried-and-true narrative—a stodgy old bloodsucking, opera-loving lawyer comes around to the plights of the little guy, little changes aside from a payout.
Making things even stranger, the race-against-the-clock structure—which punctuates scenes with title cards counting down to the Fund’s participation deadline—is exactly the kind of dehumanizing and trite framework that the story’s content rails against. If victims shouldn’t be numbers plugged into a spreadsheet, why should they live as a percentage on a whiteboard in a movie? Why should they exist as a plot engine hoping to make audience members tense, thinking “Oh ho ho, they’re not going to make it!” until a last-minute reveal?
What Worth comes down to is the difference between a film that makes you cry and a film that makes you feel. You’re not going to hold up to a bunch of excellent character actors delivering monologues about 9/11 losses, accompanied sometimes by letters, recordings or visible injuries of their own. Add a release date aimed squarely at the 20th anniversary of the attack, and you’ve got the makings of a calculated assault on the Kleenex box. But you might feel equally uneasy as the tears flow, as the ending of each speech comes away like a cheat—not as something to humanize these people or their plights, but to humanize Feinberg and his associates. Director Sara Colangelo’s camera remains transfixed upon its testimonials, but it’s after it cuts away, when it’s left to linger and resonate, that you start seeing how the script treats them as tools. Educational moments for the unaffected elite.
For his part, Keaton is good at what he’s given: Being a decidedly gentile Kenneth Feinberg who weathers people yelling “Jew lawyer” at him and must grow out of being a robotic ultra-pragmatist. His lips pursed and gaze malleable but tough, he’s still able to radiate that old-school charm one might get from a long-timer that never made the leap to the internet age. But there’s still not much to him, even as the supporting cast exists solely to construct him. Camille and Priya merely serve as external consciences, visiting the hateful parents of a gay man whose partner will be left with nothing or empathizing with loss in ways that Kenneth simply cannot. They become sad in their noble ways—acted with aplomb by both actresses—then pass this morality along to Kenneth. Tucci preaches in his face, speaking only in weighty drama bombs. It’s not surprising that Kenneth comes around, but that it takes so much and so long—so many contemplative walks on the beach, so much staring at a collection of donated memorabilia from those the Fund serves.
Worth’s basis in a true story (specifically on Feinberg’s published account, What Is Life Worth?) that so easily lends itself to convention damns this dramatic path of least resistance. For a film about respecting the individual—even if you can’t do them justice—in the face of corporate power, an easily influenced government and rampant wealth inequality, contorting a story full of emotional complexity and fascinating legal drama into a simple tale of a lesson learned is devastating irony. The potential poked and prodded at by Borenstein’s few throwaway lines and Colangelo’s unwavering eye proves itself as a story that should be revisited. A story that could offer insight into a country where commerce is always prioritized over citizenry, where “old money” refers both to blue-bloods and the funds required to get the kind of healthcare to live that long. A story that could truly individualize a massive, era-defining tragedy. In this telling, however, you’ll follow the plot and shed some appropriate tears, but if you come away feeling cheap, you won’t be alone. A key change can make you cry; Worth needs more to make you feel.
Director: Sara Colangelo
Writers: Max Borenstein
Stars: Michael Keaton, Amy Ryan, Stanley Tucci, Tate Donovan, Shunori Ramanathan, Laura Benanti
Release Date: September 3, 2021 (Netflix)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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