In the early moments of Sara Colangelo’s Worth, lawyer Ken Feinberg (Michael Keaton) tells a classroom full of students that while philosophers can debate the value of human life, in the law profession, you can live in the realm of numbers. While assigning a dollar value to someone’s life may seem cold, there’s a bizarre comfort in compensation and that someone can be held responsible in the face of tragedy. What makes Worth impressive is how it dives into the complicated space between hard pragmatism and necessary compassion. The central conflict explores why individualism is essential in the wake of mass slaughter not because of ego or greed, but because sometimes humanity must be met with more than numbers. Led by excellent performances from Keaton and co-star Stanley Tucci, Worth carries the emotional weight of remembering 9/11 victims while still working like a legal procedural on how those victims should be compensated.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Ken Feinberg and his law partner Camille Biros (Amy Ryan) offer their experience in compensation cases to the government to oversee the compensation fund for victims. Feinberg and Biros want to help out in the best way they know how, and compensation matters not just from a moral perspective, but also if the victims sue the airlines, it could lead to a ripple effect that cripples the economy. Feinberg and his small team work to come up with a formula for compensating the victims based on potential earnings over a projected lifespan, but he’s surprised at how unwilling most of the victims are to sign on to the compensation fund. Feinberg then meets a worthy foe in Charles Wolf (Tucci), who lost his wife in the attacks. Wolf holds no personal animosity towards Feinberg, but he believes the formula fails to adequately recognize the humanity and individuality of the victims. Ken must work to realize his good intentions are not enough while not sacrificing his pragmatism.
At its best, Worth succeeds because it doesn’t have villains. There’s a crummy subplot involving a lawyer played by Tate Donovan who wants more compensation for the families of the wealthiest victims, but Worth excels when it’s Feinberg and Tucci respectfully discussing how to compensate the victims. There’s a tangible conflict with real stakes but it’s about how to find some way forward after unimaginable tragedy on a massive scale. Neither Feinberg nor Wolf seems unreasonable in their demands, but there’s still a ticking clock because if Feinberg doesn’t meet a threshold of fund participants by December 22, 2003, the matter could get kicked back to congress and the victims get nothing.
I found Worth oddly comforting even though it’s about the aftermath of 9/11. When you look at all the fallout from 9/11–the endless wars, torturing people, the Patriot Act, the rampant Islamophobia—you can see the appeal of attaching hard numbers to help people who are suffering. Both Feinberg and Wolf know that the money doesn’t undo tragedy and this has nothing to do with greed, but money matters. As Feinberg notes, “Money is food on your table and a roof over your head.” By focusing so much on the individual stories of those who died on 9/11 and their families, Worth serves as an important reminder not just of the immediate impact of the attacks, but that these people aren’t just numbers even though Feinberg thinks it would be more equitable and pragmatic to view them as such.
To the credit of Keaton and Tucci, you never pick a side or think one is an unreasonable bastard. They’re in a place where we all live when confronted with tragedy: “What can I do and how can I help?” The procedural framework keeps the plot moving but doesn’t lose sight of the need to assist those who are suffering. Worth uses its central conflict not to pick a side but to show why compensation in this instance requires individualization. The movie doesn’t uphold individuality because it’s The American Character™, but because mass slaughter shouldn’t be met with mass compensation. Just because terrorists kill indiscriminately, that doesn’t mean we should follow their lead when it comes to compensating the families of their victims.
Although I wish the craft of Worth was stronger (the camerawork almost seems to be at odds with the emotional stakes, perhaps to put us in Feinberg’s perspective, but it means the movie takes a bit to find its rhythm), I was moved by how it put “Never Forget” into practice. No one expects anyone affected by tragedy to “move on” or that money solves grief, but Worth skillfully shows the balance between compensation and commiseration.
Worth does not currently have a release date.
For more of our Sundance 2020 reviews, click the links below: