How do you put a value on a human life? Not in an emotional sense, but a monetary worth, a price ticket? It’s the question that top attorney Kenneth Feinberg (Michael Keaton) poses to a group of law students at the start of Worth, which traces the behind the scenes battles and wrangling that went with the establishment of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund after the attacks in 2001. In the classroom, the answer is clear cut – a negotiated figure and a compromise that satisfies neither party. In the real world, Feinberg finds it’s not so easy.
On that day 20 years ago, we knew that the world would never be quite the same again – how we couldn’t foresee – but the families of the 2,977 people killed in the attacks were faced with a multitude of immediate problems. Shock, emotional loss and more practical, financial issues stared them in the face. The government set up the fund, with Feinberg at its head, to both help them through the latter and prevent a flood of law suits. His pragmatic, formulaic approach makes logical sense but a series of encounters with community organiser Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci), along with other survivors, shows him that his one-size-fits-all approach simply cannot work. It needs to be more personal. More human.
It’s not the dramatic confrontation it sounds. Tucci’s Wolf, whose wife died on September 11th, is quietly spoken, rational and dignified, sharing more than a few similarities with Feinberg. Essentially, he’s the attorney’s conscience brought to life, but the inclusion of two other families and their cases adds to the pressure on Feinberg, even if their stories occupy less screen time. One involves the wife of a fireman who discovers her late husband had a mistress and two children she never knew about and who are also claiming from the fund. The other is a gay man from Virginia whose partner died in The Pentagon but whose parents refuse to recognise their relationship, which stands in the way of any recompense.
Despite the film’s message about the value of human life, its climax is actually about Feinberg and his team convincing 80% of the alleged victims to agree to claim from the fund. What sounds like a strange choice makes a certain amount of sense, considering its dignified approach to the subject: this is not a film for grandstanding or histrionics, so the dramatic options are limited and this is the best one. Feinberg himself is a meaty role for Keaton, a man who could be seen as the bad guy – exactly how the families see him at the outset – but who, over time, has sufficient breadth of vision to realise his approach, while logical, is simply wrong. He’s well supported by Tucci as the grey man with the quiet voice, Feinberg’s self-described “harshest critic” who challenges him all the way but always retains respect for his adversary.
Directed with compassion by Sara Colangelo, (The Kindergarten Teacher), there are times when Worth feels a little too stolid, almost reverential, but it always manages to avoid the potential for crass sentiment. Comparisons with Tom McCarthy’s Oscar winner Spotlight are inevitable and obvious, but this is a different proposition, one where money starts out as the main driving force and has less value – or worth – than anybody involved would have imagined.
Drama | Cert: 12A | Cinema, 27 August 2021 | Netflix, 3 September 2021 | Dir. Sara Colangelo | Michael Keaton, Stanley Tucci, Amy Ryan, Tate Donovan, Shunori Ramanathan