Film Review – Worth
Worth (2021) asks an impossible question: How much is a human life worth? This isn’t just a philosophical debate. Director Sara Colangelo examines the challenge of assigning a monetary value to a person. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the government established the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund to help the families of the victims. This was partially done in hopes of alleviating some of the pain of the tragedy, but it was also enacted to prevent the lawsuits that could bring the airline industry to its knees and cripple the economy. But the task of dividing the fund amongst thousands of families is not only difficult, but grotesque. How does one determine if one life is more valuable than another?
Working off a script by Max Borenstein, Colangelo structures her narrative in a straightforward fashion. The conditions of the fund are set up early to help us understand the stakes. A law firm is given two years to get eighty percent of the families to sign onto the program. If they are unable to reach the goal, the fund will dissolve. Attorney Kenneth Feinberg (Michael Keaton) and his team – including head of operations, Camille Biros (Amy Ryan) – must take on the job no one else wants: having to figure out a way to distribute the money that is equal and fair.
But what is “equal and fair?” Does a CEO of a multi-billion-dollar company deserve a bigger slice than a janitor who worked for minimum wage? What about the firefighters and rescue teams that ran into the towers? What about the recovery teams that suffered breathing problems due to asbestos exposure? The list of questions and exceptions appear endless, with Feinberg and his firm getting overwhelmed almost immediately. In the initial town hall, Feinberg stumbles over his words as families turn hostile, believing the fund to simply be the government’s way of shutting them up.
Colangelo (with cinematographer Pepe Avila del Pino) places the weight of the world on Feinberg’s shoulders. The camera routinely captures him singled out in wide and long shots, with the empty spaces having a claustrophobic effect. This is especially resonant during an early scene on a train, where Feinberg slowly comes to the realization of the attacks as he notices other passengers starting to panic. Colangelo utilizes the “ticking clock” approach to heighten dramatic tension. We get title cards that give us the date and how many days are left before the deadline. We go from two years, to one year, to a few months, to a few days. Things get more desperate as Feinberg sees time running out and the eighty percent not within sight.
Michael Keaton delivers yet another solid, dependable performance as Feinberg. He balances the authority and workman like qualities he showed in Spotlight (2015) with a level of uncertainty. Why did Feinberg choose to volunteer for this job? Perhaps he wanted to serve his country in a way he was in a position of power to do so, maybe it was simply ego. Keaton navigates Feinberg’s arc as he delves deeper into these families lives. At first, he believed that keeping a detached, objective viewpoint was the only way to make things even. But as he learns, people are not numbers on a spreadsheet – everyone has their own story to tell. He meets Karen (Laura Benanti) whose husband died and left her with three kids to raise on her own. Graham (Andy Schneeflock) lost his partner, but state law does not recognize gay partners as eligible for compensation. Charles Wolff (Stanley Tucci), founder of the Fix the Fund website and one of Feinberg’s harshest critics, explains that an algorithm will never give the families resolution.
As the plot progresses into the second half, the momentum noticeably slows down. Colangelo’s direct, no-frills style is economical, but not very remarkable. It goes about the story efficiently – which is fine – but it does lend to the narrative following a familiar course of events. Things turn repetitive as more families are interviewed, slowly chipping away at Feinberg’s hard exterior. As we enter the later stages, the “race against time” takes center stage, which oddly lends to a less engaging watch. The climactic moment feels the least believable, as Colangelo opts for grand displays of goodwill. It’s as though the production lifts a sign advising the audience that this is when we should strike up in applause or shed a tear. All the problems are fixed and we can walk away knowing that everything turned out ok in the end.
Which, of course, is not true. Regardless of the result of Feinberg’s efforts, Worth doesn’t have the happy ending it strives for. It attempts to find closure in a story that sadly does not have one. Even today, two decades removed from the attacks, the effects of 9/11 are still being felt. However, the earnestness displayed does earn the film a recommendation. While it might follow a traditional path in terms of structure, it does shed light on how the ripple effects of that fateful day continue to expand.