This month marks the 20th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center. With two decades having passed of what was the worst day in U.S. history, streaming services have released a handful of new documentaries in the past week. The best of the documentaries, is also one of the best films of the year and comes from AppleTV+ in the documentary titled “9/11: Inside The President’s War Room” (my full review is now up on mauiwatch.com). With new documentaries there also comes new films about September 11th and Netflix has premiered an original film this past weekend called “Worth”.
The film was announced during the 2018 Berlin Film Festival, with David Frankel (“Marley & Me”) directing. Studio sales for the film took place at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival and in February 2019, Sara Colangelo replaced Frankel as director to where the film had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2020. The film has been purchased, released in a limited theatrical run and is now streaming on Netflix.
It’s based on the true story of attorney Ken Feinberg, who volunteered for the job nobody else wanted. Known as the “special master”, he led a legal team that had to determine the financial worth of each victim of the 9/11 attacks and how he had to convince the families that the settlement offers were fair amounts. Sara Colangelo’s film centers around asking the question: How much is a life worth? Should the widow of a bartender receive the same amount as the family of a CFO who had four children? Feinberg played by veteran actor Michael Keaton has to ask and determine these questions, including if it is right to even ask such questions?
“Worth” is a straightforward, well-intentioned, well-acted, at times an effective, but incredibly dry and moves at a slugs pace drama. Throughout the film, we watch as Keaton’s Feinberg is forced to open his heart to the families and acknowledge that a simple mathematical formula is no way to measure a person’s worth and that people aren’t just numbers on a spreadsheet.
The September 11th Victim Compensation Fund was Congress approved, but it would kick in only if at least 80% of the families signed on and waived their right to sue the airlines. The funds goals were simple…at least publicly. The goal was to provide tax free money to compensate the families of those who died. But the real reason, as revealed in a scene that sees Feinberg in a room with an airline lobby, was to convince the families not to sue the airline industry and fearing that lawsuits of that magnitude would cripple the economy. But “Worth” tries not to head into those choppy waters too much.
Feinberg lacks the simple human empathy to see beyond the data, as evidenced by his first meeting with the victims’ families. Despite being warned by many, that this is still too emotionally “raw” to be like his other compensation cases. Feinberg is a textbook example of how not to speak to people in a state of grief. It’s not that he is a bad guy and he definitely isn’t trying to minimize the value of their loved one’s lives, but his bedside manner is certainly lacking. Even though his heart is in the right place.
Ken Feinberg is a special kind of person and attorney; who has handled victim compensation cases tied to the shootings in Sandy Hook, Aurora, Orlando and Virginia Tech. As well as scandals involving the Catholic Church and Penn State, among many others. As mentioned before Michael Keaton plays Ken Feinberg, who is brilliant with numbers and the law. But he is lacking that emotional intelligence that is displayed in a sequence within a town hall meeting featuring victims’ families and friends, including firefighters who nearly shout him out of the building.
Keaton plays Feinberg as restrained and level headed in the job he has to do that is not ruled by emotion. Keaton is on a career high as of late in re-appearing as Batman in the upcoming “Flash” movie from DC, last month playing a bad guy assassin in “The Protégé”, next month appearing in Hulu’s limited series “Dopesick” and here in Netflix’s “Worth” in a really strong showcase role. I love seeing Keaton in a lead role again, although I think he was hoping to get another dramatic based on a true story winner, like his 2015 Oscar winner “Spotlight”. Unfortunately “Worth” is no modern masterpiece like “Spotlight”.
To complicate matters for Feinberg is the constant presence of an activist widower named Charles Wolf (played in another standout performance by Stanley Tucci), who has picked apart the government’s compensation fund and has set up a website called “Fix The Fund”. Keaton and Tucci are tremendous together onscreen in their numerous scenes, as these two men who share a love of opera and find ways to agree to disagree without making it personal.
As Feinberg and his team keep track of the number of sign-ups on a white board, we learn the stories of some of the survivors. Including a man who learns he’ll get nothing because his home state doesn’t recognize gay unions and a firefighter’s wife who doesn’t want any money, just an assurance that her husband’s name and heroics won’t be forgotten.
The pacing of “Worth” is incredibly slow and I mean incredibly slow. To where the film only has one big heated confrontation and it’s a great one between Keaton and Tucci as each tries to argue that their way is right, but the film never paints either of them into a corner. “Worth” also manages to pull off being dramatic without ever being over melodramatic or schmaltzy.
It’s an intriguing look at the work that went into finding a way to compensate the people left behind when their loved ones that died on September 11th, 2001. It’s a dry and slow moving drama, but is a fascinating look into what must have been an exceedingly difficult task and dramatization into one of the defining moments of our generation. It’s a subject and historical event that twenty years later, is still taboo and one of the country’s worst moments in history.
GRADE: ★★★☆☆ (3 out of 5)