Just 10 days after 9/11, the United States Congress approved a bill to help compensate the families of the victims of the horrific tragedy. Despite the name of the bill — the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund — its aims weren’t only altruistic, as the bill sought to give tax-free, government-funded money to mourning families in exchange for their promise to not sue the airline companies involved in the terrorist act. Still, the bill was imagined as be for the good of all Americans: had the families sued the airlines, it was believed that the suits would crater the American economy, the aftershocks of the attack only further decimating the country. The first problem: how to calculate the payment for each film, a moral and financial conundrum that didn’t appeal to many lawyers. It did, however, appeal to attorney Ken Feinberg.
One part character study, one part journey through bureaucratic bullshit and political machinations, Sara Colangelo’s “Worth” brings to life the story of Feinberg’s (Michael Keaton) seemingly unwinnable mission. Portrayed by Keaton in an unflashy, wholly impressive turn, Feinberg is a reason-driven legal wonk who, despite not believing that anything can ever be truly fair, still thinks the law and rational thinking can get people at least part of the way there. He’s the kind of guy who unwinds by listening to opera, who comes home and doesn’t take off his jacket or so much as loosen his tie before settling down to relax. And what he lacks in emotional intelligence — his first meeting with the victims’ families is a jaw-dropping lesson in what not to say to people in mourning — he makes up for with an unshakeable moral compass. Put it this way: Feinberg and his team worked on the fund for 33 months, pro bono.
Colangelo assembles a stacked supporting cast to assist Keaton in enlivening the proceedings: Amy Ryan is his righthand woman Camille Brios, Shunori Ramanathan is a tenderhearted new associate who was nearly in the towers on that terrible day, and a wonderful, restrained Stanley Tucci is the man who will become Feinberg’s biggest roadblock. Max Borenstein’s careful but never dry script keeps the drama ticking along, while Julia Bloch’s meticulous editing adds snaps to what could be a convoluted legal drama about “torts” and “actuaries” and other decidedly non-thrilling concepts.
Colangelo and cinematographer Pepe Avila del Pino find further drama in their muted compositions, often framing characters in solitary conditions, all the better to highlight the punishing solitary conditions that came with such work. When del Pino goes for the rare wide shot of the film’s performers, the effect is always striking, a reminder that despite Feinberg’s personal investement, he is not alone, as there are so many people counting on him.
That’s not to say that most of those people even like him. That first disastrous meeting sets a tone for both Feinberg and Tucci’s Charles Wolf that never quite abates: Feinberg is the pencil-pusher trying to put a price on people’s lives, and Wolf is the rage-against-the-machine widower who knows from the jump that the fund’s parameters are fundamentally flawed. Feinberg’s position as “special master” of the fund gives him wide powers — he and Camille and their team must decide the presumed financial worth of each victim, based on their compensation and other factors at the time of the attack, and the formula is up to them. However, he’s not exactly the kind of guy who thrives without a rigid structure. While Feinberg’s moral sensibilities are never in question, his tendency to compartmentalize the victims as lines on a spreadsheet win him no affection from their heartbroken families. Wolf has no such problems getting to the human heart of the matter.
As Feinberg and his team work towards a necessary number — 80 percent of the families need to sign up for the fund, relinquishing their legal claims, if the scheme is to work — Borenstein’s script delicately layers on other complications that force him to reckon with the very people he’s trying to help. Laura Benati appears as a widow who refuses to join the fund because she’s more compelled by people simply remembering her firefighter husband’s bravery (Chris Tardio is her righteous, pissed-off brother-in-law), though Feinberg eventually learns something that might change her mind. Tate Donovan stars as a fellow lawyer looking to undermine the fund and ante up a massive lawsuit with the families. Camille becomes compelled by a man who has lost his domestic partner and who will get nothing because of the inflexibility of the law when it comes to such relationships (and who’s further hamstrung by his dead boyfriend’s intractable parents).
While “Worth” is most literally concerned with a stupefying question — what is a life worth? — it’s more precisely about the price of calculating such a wrenching ask. When Colangelo’s film opens, Feinberg is trying to impress upon one of his law school classes that the question is a legal one, a query that can actually be answered, given enough information. By the film’s quiet, sensitive conclusion, Feinberg has unearthed a new answer about the value of human life, and the price for those who can’t help but recognize it.
“Worth” premiered in the Premieres section of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.