After the horrific terrorist attacks and loss of life on 9/11, the U.S. Government was faced with a crisis of another kind, the possibility that lawsuits against the airlines could crater the economy. Senator Ted Kennedy knew just the man, his former chief of staff Ken Feinberg (Michael Keaton) now heading a law firm which specializes in victim compensation, to head up a government fund to discourage the riskier and more drawn out private legal process. But what Ken and his chief of operations Camille Biros (Amy Ryan) will discover is that this tragedy will be uniquely emotional and fraught with pitfalls in estimating a lost life’s “Worth.”
Laura's Review: B-
With the 20th anniversary of 9/11 upon us, writer Max Borenstein ("Godzilla vs. Kong") has found an unusual angle to honor the lost and those who worked to support their loved ones left behind. Director Sara Colangelo’s ("The Kindergarten Teacher") film may be visually drab, but it features many strong emotional scenes and an interesting character study of a man whose heart was in the right place but whose head was focused on figures. If only she’d steered Keaton away from what may be the worst Boston accent in cinematic history, a vocal atrocity so jarring it took a good twenty minutes in to stop noticing it.
Otherwise Keaton is quite good navigating the character arc of a man who patriotically offered his services pro bono but frustrated those around him with his apparent lack of empathy. We are introduced to the man as he dictates an email to a secretary stressing his overloaded schedule and the importance of punctuality, wrapping with ‘Love, Dad.’ He is in his own world as everyone else’s shatters, listening to his beloved Puccini on headphones as his fellow commuter train passengers take calls and stare out the windows in disbelief.
Once made the ‘Special Master,’ Ken (oddly, he emphasizes this more casual address with everyone he meets) knows he has a challenge in coming up with a compensation formula which will address everyone from CEOs to janitors, but all the awareness in the world doesn’t matter when he first stands up to speak with survivors. The simple fact is that he’s tone deaf, inserting his foot into his mouth time and time again. After losing the crowd, he meets Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci), the man who came in late and asked the audience to let him speak. But Wolf is not his savior. He’s a lawyer who lost his wife in one of the towers who has started a ‘Fix the Fund’ website and a man capable of connecting with people. Ken also meets Frank Donato (Chris Tardio, TV's 'Younger'), the brother of a NYC firefighter who demands change and gets what only can be described as lip service.
The filmmakers make the usual choice of establishing a few to represent the many but balance it out with a number of montages as survivors are interviewed at Ken’s firm. While lawyer Lee Quinn (Tate Donovan) circles, threatening that $14 million isn’t enough for CEOs, Camille meets with the non-English speaking families of service staff who are astonished that the $200K minimum baseline figure she gives them isn’t a pool, but per person. The individual case which comes to define how Ken’s ‘rules,’ ones which he must stick with or face a congressional logjam, can never be fair is that of Graham, a gay man whose partner called him from the towers, but whose partner’s parents condemn as a liar and gold digger. The other confounding case is that of Frank Donato’s widowed sister-in-law Karen Abate (Laura Benanti, TV's 'Younger'), who arrives late one evening when only Ken is available. He agrees to talk with her and hears a heart-breaking story, but mostly she wants to be left alone to grieve and refuses any compensation (Ken must sign up 80% of survivors for his plan to succeed). In the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction department, what changes her mind is something most unexpected (and in the end, she will return, once again, after hours to notify Ken of her decision).
“Worth” plays like a courtroom drama without the courtroom, full of intrigues and setbacks and revelations, but it is mainly about how one man ill equipped for the task at hand turns around, Stanley Tucci’s fellow opera lover like his emotional whisperer. Ryan is a terrific counterbalance, handling tough emotional scenes. Also strong is “The Big Sick’s” Shunori Ramanathan as Ken’s former prized pupil Priya Khundi who lands at his law firm when the one she was slated to join disappears along with Wolf’s wife in a pile of smoke and rubble. Talia Balsam is given little to do as Ken’s wife Dede.
Robin's Review: B
Shortly after the tragedy on that terrible late-summer day in 2001, the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund was established. Mediation specialist Kenneth Feinberg (Michael Keaton) was assigned as Special Master, tasked to administer the funds to the families of the thousands of victims of that deadly airliner attack. But, the toughest part of the job for Ken and his team is to set, in cold, hard numbers, each victim’s “Worth.”
Michael Keaton stars as Ken Feinberg, a man who, in his career, mediated settlements in such cases as the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster and the victim assistance fund for those killed in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. His mediation of the September 11 Victim Compensation distributions is the subject of director Sara Colangelo and screenwriter Max Borenstein. The result is a straightforward telling of the case and the machinations of establishing the cash value on what each victim is worth.
Just the concept of putting a fixed cash value on a person’s life if they lived is a daunting one for a layman to get his head around. How the “experts” go about figuring out that number for that individual is near-impossible for someone not trained and experienced. The filmmakers do a fine job in showing that decision-making process and how it proved a big bone of contention for the many parties involved.
To give an idea of the enormity of the task of giving equitable compensation to the victim families, just consider: is the life of a stockbroker who died on that terrible day worth more than that of the firefighter who died trying to save him? Now, multiply this decision by 2977 times and you get a small idea what the Special Master and his team face, like families, angry and grieving, in dire and desperate need of those funds.
While Keaton and Stanley Tucci (effectively plays the widower of a victim, Charlie Wolf, who helped save the day for Ken) are the “stars” of the “Worth.” The film really shines with its supporting cast: the families of the victims whose lives are dramatically transformed by the fateful events of 9/11. The well-acted supporting cast members are too numerous to give any real shrift so I guess you will have to see the film for yourself. You will appreciate the fine effort the entire cast and crew give to “Worth.”
"Worth" premieres on Netflix on 9/3/21.