If there has been any time that has placed a spotlight on how fragile human life can be, it’s now. Not just everyday things we take for granted. It’s how it can all be taken away from us in an instant. You can’t possibly put a value on the dignity and worth of a person. Dead or alive. That’s where Kenneth Feinberg comes in. A renowned mediation lawyer who has worked on everything from the Agent Orange scandal, BP Deepwater Horizon disaster is a panel member who decided the Zapruder film’s value. There’s nothing he can’t put a number on. Yet, he never found himself on The Price is Right.
Michael Keaton stars as Feinberg. He is close to retirement. He and his wife (Mad Men’s Talia Balsam) put the final touches on their beach house. After years of defending the government or big business interests, he wants to cap off a notable career by helping the families of the men and women who perished on September 11th, 2001. Well, not exactly.
Feinberg is protecting the Airline industry, and the government is going to pay the bill. The September 11th Victim Compensation Fund was a government bailout to help prevent the victims and their families from suing the Airline industry (boy, these guys don’t pay for anything). If they do, the industry will go bankrupt and even ruin the U.S. economy. The plaintiffs’ plight so moves Feinberg and his administrative director, Camille Biros (Amy Ryan), he refuses to take a dime for their efforts. This is not a movie fabrication. He or his group never took a dime for their work.
What Worth does well, focus the camera on the stories of families. This produces images of agonizing loved ones calling their wives, husbands, children, and partners before the towers collapsed. You never know what type of reaction you will hear about. One man, a widow, tells Ryan’s Biros, her husband stayed behind to help some people. They became stuck in an elevator. Consequently, he began to laugh uncontrollably when he realized no one was coming for him. Meanwhile, another grieving partner plays the tape of his partner, leaving him a message to tell him he loves him. The issue is they never made it to Vermont. They are not considered a legal union.
There are dozens of stories like this captured with raw emotion. Director Sara Colangelo (Little Accidents, The Kindergarten Teacher), working from a remarkably grounded script from Max Borenstein (Godzilla franchise, King Kong: Skull Island), put you inside this taxing experience. How would your mental health hold up? Day after day? Week after week? With countless stories of lost loved ones. Going through hundreds of boxes of Kleenex to wipe away thousands upon thousands of tears? It’s a vicarious experience. The legal team begins to experience compassion fatigue quickly.
Except for Feinberg, who approached the case with such good intentions. He looks at the victims coldly as numbers. Slowly, this begins to thaw. He is approached by a firefighter, Frank Donato (The Sopranos Chris Tardio), who lost his brother in the attack. He left behind his wife, Kate (Laura Benanti), and their three boys. They refuse to sign up for the buyout. All they want is a chance to tell the story of their loved one’s story to promote change in first responder protocols.
There is another man., Charles G. Wolf (a terrific Stanley Tucci) opposes everything about how the frigid plan takes out the human element. How Fienberg refuses to use the extent of his powers to help maximize the victim’s value. He is putting a weighted value on what the government deems more valuable: a cop or firefighter who ran into the building or the ones that perished with a nice corner office.
Worth is based on Feinberg’s nonfiction book, What Is Life Worth?: The Unprecedented Effort to Compensate the Victims of 9/11. Colangelo’s film captures the human side of the matter. Many may feel it smartly avoids too much of the legal arguments and entanglements. This could have used a bit more of that to build up some tension and suspense.
Netflix’s Worth looks and feels like a film from a genre called “Tom McCarthy light.” It has elements of far superior films like Spotlight. It’s a morality play where the stakes have never been higher and are still playing out in courts today. Keaton’s career second act (hell, maybe third) places another jewel of performance since breaking back into Hollywood with Birdman. He is the cold, cynical heart of the film without realizing it. Most importantly, he found his humanity and his unconscious bias in the process.