Moviegoer: Worth

Can you put price on a human life?

By Diana Beechener

In the wake of 9/11, the government takes action—not to comfort their citizens, but to protect themselves and the airlines from lawsuits that could crater the economy. They decide to commission a fund that will offer compensation to the families of first responders and victims.

         Ken Feinberg (Michael Keaton: The Protégé) volunteers to administer the fund. Famed in D.C. for settling with the victims of Agent Orange, Feinberg is convinced he can come up with a rubric that will calculate the value of the lives lost and make everyone happy. The fund must get at least 80 percent of those eligible to agree to a settlement and decline to sue to avoid dire economic consequences.

         The formula, which considers potential income, number of dependents, and disabilities may be mathematically sound, but it deeply offends the grieving families he presents it to. The fund also cuts off compensation for first responders who reported getting sick more than three days after 9/11, meaning all the crews inhaling asbestos are on their own as far as the government is concerned. Used to dealing with lawyers, Feinberg pushes that this way is fair and logical. But the argument has very little pull with the victims.

         Those grieving balk at the idea that someone who washes dishes in a restaurant is only worth $200,000, but a CEO is worth $14 million. The CEO families are also insulted, because they believe they’re owed far more than $14 million in compensation. Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci: Jolt) is one of the offended parties. He lost his wife during the attacks and finds the rubric, and the purpose of the fund to be unjust. He begins his own mission: gathering angry people to protest.

         Can Feinberg get past the numbers and see the real, human cost of the tragedy? Or is the fund a lost cause?

         Nearly 20 years later, we’re still fighting for proper medical compensation for 9/11. Worth is a reminder that the government by the people and for the people isn’t always looking out for those people when disaster strikes. And though the film raises some fantastic questions, Worth isn’t really interested in answering any of them.

         Director Sara Colangelo (The Kindergarten Teacher) has several ideas for a film, but mashes them all together to make Worth a bit of a mess. The film wants to criticize the initial 9/11 Fund, praise it as finally finding a solution (something many first responders might take umbrage with), and explore a family drama all at once. Unfortunately, none of those ideas is fleshed out enough to be worthy of such a weighty subject.

         Colangelo based most of the script on Feinberg’s memoir, which might explain why it has so much trouble taking him to task for several issues. Because she needs a bad guy, Colangelo creates a composite lawyer, who represents the high-earners who want more money. It’s an easy villain, but the powerful stories of those affected are short-changed because of it.

         While there are undeniable problems in the script, Worth’s greatest asset is its cast. Keaton is wonderful as a thick-accented lawyer who’s used to business meetings over cocktails and White House visits. His face, when confronted with the waves of grief and anger from the victims, could be taught in classes—it’s an elegant distillation of shock and defeat.

Also brilliant, but completely underutilized, is Tucci, who effortlessly steals scenes as a man used to tilting at windmills. His Wolf is despondent and coping by making it his mission to get a just settlement for everyone affected by the terror attack. The film positively sings when Tucci’s humanist conflicts with Keaton’s cold number-cruncher. This is why it’s a shame that they get roughly four scenes together.

         Worth’s script may hurt the stories, but the visceral reminders of the pain and horror of that day— including news footage, be warned—still raises goosebumps. Colangelo crafts a terrifying scene on a train as the passengers realize something terrible is happening in D.C. and crowd the windows. It’s harrowing sequences like that which make the muddled plot more infuriating. Ultimately, trying to put a happy ending on a 9/11 story feels a bit hollow, but there is power in the intention of this film.

Fair Drama * PG-13 * 118 mins.

Worth is available on Netflix.