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In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a lawyer takes on the difficult task of managing the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, a government program set up to distribute financial settlements to the families of the victims. He and his team grapple with their consciences as they determine who should be awarded compensation and how much should be given out.
Michael Keaton (Spotlight, The Founder), who also serves as a producer, Stanley Tucci (Spotlight, The Devil Wears Prada), and Amy Ryan (Gone Baby Gone, The Office).
As America commemorates 20 years since the 9/11 terror attacks, Netflix has debuted a film based on a gut-wrenching true story. Worth is an important, albeit subtle film that deserved to be made and given our attention, much like the last time Keaton and Tucci teamed up for the Oscar-winning Spotlight.
The film quickly alerts the audience that we are in for an unsettling time as we hear a jet rumbling, followed by sirens, and then the voices of multiple witnesses, first responders, and family members. It’s not clear if these are from actual recordings or dramatized for the film, but they lay down the film’s foundation in a powerful way. Then it introduces us to lawyer and law professor Ken Feinberg (Keaton) as he poses a question to a class of students, the same question the film poses to its audience: “What is life worth?” As he heads home on a commuter train later, we see the Pentagon crash site through Feinberg’s eyes.
Director Sara Colangelo splits the frame with the smoky scene while he looks out the train window. Paying respects to the seriousness of the subject, Colangelo briefly puts a pause on the movie by going into documentary mode. Some of the actual scenes from that day are mixed well with media clips and reaction shots of shocked and devastated Americans watching it all unfold.
Faced with the threat of potential multimillion-dollar lawsuits and the subsequent economic disruption it could cause, the government brings in Feinberg and his firm, which specializes in negotiating payments for victims’ families. They propose what would later become known as the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, and Feinberg takes on the role of Special Master in charge of dispensing the money.
The job starts out as an actuary’s dream–he uses tables for every age bracket, salary, and other groupings to form the bottom line. But the movie also explores how some victims don’t easily fit into a table. As the title implies, the heart of the film is the question of how much one human life is worth. It could have easily and quickly gotten formulaic and sappy, but screenwriter Max Borenstein keeps it as natural as possible.
The cast does the rest. Michael Keaton is his usual outstanding self, complete with a Boston dialect, visibly wrestling with his conscience. Ryan is also solid as Feinberg’s associate, Camille Biros. But it’s the always stellar Tucci who stands out as Feinberg’s biggest foe, Charles Wolf, whose wife was killed at the World Trade Center. The scenes between Keaton and Tucci are the best acting payoffs in the film. Wolf is an antagonist, but he does it determinedly, with a smile and a website to counteract Feinberg’s mission.
The subject matter might still be hard for many to tolerate—there aren’t many light moments thrown in to balance the dark mood—but this is a unique drama in our post-9/11 world. While we feel the rawness of families as they struggle to understand the settlement amount for their loved ones, it’s not an overly emotional endeavor. The score and original music by Nico Muhly evoke just the right note throughout.
You will likely still be thinking about Worth the next day and beyond.
Worth puts a renewed focus on the attacks of Sept. 11 and the aftermath of a country in mourning. There is plenty of sadness, but also big moral questions to ponder and some great performances by the talented cast.
This film is fueled by its legal and philosophical quandaries, so it’s not something to watch with kids as an introduction to what happened on 9/11. Law students should find it especially compelling, though, as well as those who follow history or have some interest in the untold personal stories in its wake. And of course, fans of Keaton and Tucci won’t be disappointed.
Stay tuned at the end for the usual white-on-black text summing up the real-life history of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund (which continues to distribute payments to this day) and Feinberg’s ongoing work in getting settlements for families who have lost their loved ones under tragic circumstances.