As we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11, it’s important to remember the people still picking up the pieces of their lives that were shattered in the wake of that day’s events. Worth, now streaming on Netflix, seems like a wise reminder with its focus on the recipients of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. But for a film aiming to emphasize personal losses over financial ones, it gets awfully lost in the lawyering and number crunching — much like its protagonist.
Michael Keaton stars as Ken Feinberg, the real-life lawyer who took on the unenviable task of developing a formula by which to pay each of the 9/11 survivors a specific amount. We see him initially decide to base the payments on the victims’ economic value. Of course, his explanation of this method doesn’t go well in a town hall meeting.
While fighting back tears, a grieving mother tells him, “My boy was a firefighter. Was he worth less than the guy pushing pencils and trading stock?” Feinberg quickly assures her, “No, certainly not as a human being.” But when she reminds him that those two lives ended the same way, he says, “But their mortgages did differ.”
This kind of confrontation plays out again and again. And while that was undoubtedly the case in real life, it grows tiresome to watch — especially right now, amid bickering about COVID and decisions that should be no-brainers.
Feinberg’s harshest critic, Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci), comes to represent all of the survivors. But the heated exchanges between the two men are much less compelling than the closed-curtain interviews with various victims’ loved ones. One of the most memorable scenes involves a man grappling with the fact that he was his significant other’s last call on 9/11, but neither his boyfriend’s parents nor his home state recognize their relationship. This subplot alone is worthy of being fleshed out into a feature film, but it gets buried within Worth’s repetitive plot.
Although its stars play out the same sort of scenes throughout the film, Worth is well-acted. Keaton effectively balances Feinberg’s simultaneous frustration with and urge to relieve the critics of the fund. As his professional partner, Camille Biros, Amy Ryan conveys the enormous emotional toll this kind of task can take. Tucci’s shining moment is a wordless scene in which he struggles to toss out leftovers from the meals his late wife cooked. (You can tell Tucci brought his own experience as a widower to this scene.)
Director Sara Colangelo makes up for Max Borenstein’s wordy, redundant script by lingering on quiet moments such as Feinberg listening to opera as billows of smoke rise outside his train passenger window, Biros catching her breath after a long day of interviews with survivors, or their law firm’s staff filling up the conference room, huddled around TV footage of the Twin Towers falling.
Worth is far from a bad film. It’s just an unnecessarily noisy one arriving at an excessively noisy time. There is plenty of weight in the images from 9/11 and the stories of victims and their loved ones. Like Feinberg, the film works best when it sits back, observes and lets those images and people speak for themselves. That’s what we need to do next week as well.