It’s hard to believe that the September 11th attacks were 20 years ago this month. It was an event that scarred the American psyche and that the country has been trying to reckon with through art ever since. We remember vividly things, such as the images of debris-covered civilians fleeing the scene or the American flag hanging over the ruins. There are things we don’t remember so well also, though, such as the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund which was created by an act of Congress just days after the attacks with an end goal of stopping the victims from suing the airlines involved.
Worth tells the story of Ken Feinberg and the administration of that fund, from its inception through the struggles to bring all the victims families on board and to its final resolution and payout to nearly 97% of them. If this sounds like it’s a little dry, well, you’re not entirely wrong.
Adapting a story like this is always difficult as, in all honestly, not a lot happens. The things that do happen also take place over nearly three years, and condensing that much time into just two hours makes the film feel all at once a little too slow and a little too rushed.
The story centres on Feinberg and his setup and rules for the fund. He is presented initially as an expert in tort law and the valuation of human life. On this basis, he is selected to head the fund and sets up all the processes and guidelines for who should be compensated and to what monetary extent. The families don’t necessarily want to be compensated, though, so much as they want the stories of their loved ones told, and heard, and given dignity in death.
This notion is exemplified by Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci), a man with a history of activism whose wife passed away in the attacks, who becomes a figurehead and leader among the victim’s families advocating for dignity and fair restitution. On the other side is Lee Quinn (Tate Donovan), the shark lawyer pressing to get his clients –the families of the wealthy CEOs and brokers and such– paid out at a rate greater than everyone else. Tucci and Donovan both are excellent here, with Tucci bringing a lovely angry but reasonable energy to his part. Wolf seems to know that he’s fighting the system and not Feinberg, so their conversations are often adversarial but respectful, which is refreshing for a film like this.
The real show, though, is with Amy Ryan and Michael Keaton. Ryan doesn’t have a ton of screen time as Camille Biros, Feinberg’s partner in his firm, and what time she does have is split. On the one hand, she’s the stalwart right-hand woman of Feinberg, even as he’s making bad choices. On the other, she is the one interviewing the families. It’s in these scenes that she shines; despite most of her role simply being to sit and listen, there is clear empathy and heartbreak in her performance. One scene, in particular, has her phoning the domestic partner of a gay man who won’t be receiving any benefits from the fund due to state law where he lives and his partners homophobic family, and the simple act of her leaving a voicemail is enough to make anyone’s heart ache.
Keaton, playing Feinberg, is in top form as well. Feinberg spends most of the narrative sticking to his guns and not wanting to give in to the poorer or the wealthier victims’ families and stick to his equation that determines their deceased loved ones’ worth. However, there’s a moment late in the film when he finally comes around to the idea that each person cannot be reduced to a number, and that each case will have to be heard individually, and that hardheadedness at the start and heartfeltness at the end are both extremely well played. This is exactly the kind of movie for which an actor like Keaton will be nominated for awards, and they won’t be undeserved.
Where the film stumbles is with that timeline, and especially toward the end. Feinberg eventually comes around to Wolf’s way of thinking, but by the time he does, it is so late in the film that the change of heart feels too abrupt, and the change almost too radical. Wolf also comes around to respecting Feinberg, going so far as to be the one to bring most of the families on board with the plan, but the moment of that change is set up in several scenes but takes place off-screen, which is more than a little frustrating.
Still, these are not deal-breakers, and the movie is not bad. In fact, the movie is worth watching for Michael Keaton alone (and Ryan, and Tucci), and while the main narrative is a little slow and dry, every scene with a family telling the story of a victim is heartfelt, and heartwrenching and make Worth worthy of your time.
Worth is streaming on Netflix now.
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