An attorney in Washington D.C. battles against cynicism, bureaucracy and politics to help the victims of 9/11.
How much is a human life worth? One million dollars? Ten million dollars? More? This is the question at the core of Sara Colangelo’s “Worth,” an intriguing true-life story that centers on Kenneth Feinberg, an attorney who specializes in cases where assessing compensation for the deceased is concerned. The film deals with his most high-profile case, that of dispensing funds to victims of the 9/11 attacks, a task he took on pro bono, thinking he could provide comfort and aid through his efforts. He couldn’t have been more mistaken as his clinical approach to helping the families in question, was seen as calculating and cold.
Michael Keaton takes on the role of Feinberg and proves compelling despite a distracting accent. Feeling helpless in the face of the national tragedy, he contacts the powers that be and offers up his services, having overseen such committees before. This, as well as the fact that no one else wants the job results in this task being put on his plate. His partner at his firm Camille (Amy Ryan) has her reservations about their taking this on, while junior associates Priya and Darryl (Shunori Ramanathan and Ato Blankson-Wood, respectively) recognize Fienberg’s approach is alienating potential claimants. This is a concern as the firm is required to get at least 80% of perspective respondents to apply for relief or they will be able to sue the airlines and insurance companies individually, an event that would supposedly seriously jeopardize the economy and tie up the courts for years.
The script by Max Borenstein focuses on three separate stories to represent the trials of the victims’ families. Karen Abate (Laura Benanti) is a widow struggling after losing her firefighter husband in the Twin Towers. She doesn’t want a financial payout, simply that the loss she and others like her have suffered, be recognized. Unfortunately, a secret from her husband’s past forces her to reevaluate her situation. Meanwhile, Graham Morris (Andy Schneeflock) petitions to be recognized as the legal dependent of his deceased same-sex partner. His efforts run up against laws the team are unprepared to fight. Most importantly, widower Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci) calls Feinberg and his team to task, questioning the formulas they use to calculate the monetary value of his wife and other victims. His contention that using potential earnings and life expectancy as the sole factors in determining a sum is impersonal and unfair.
These three cases are central to Feinberg going from a by-the-book lawyer to a litigator with a heart. This is, of course, the entire point of the film; unfortunately, this conclusion is reached in a rather disingenuous manner. Wolf is adamantly against the process being used yet one passing conversation with Feinberg suddenly convinces him to advocate for the government sponsored fund, resulting in hundreds coming on board at the last minute. It’s supposed to be an inspiring moment but falls flat, coming out of the blue as it does. Equally troubling is the hurried manner in which Colangelo ends the film, failing to answer some nagging questions or allowing the viewer to come to an adequate emotional reckoning.
And while the film stumbles a bit at the end, the philosophical and social questions it poses are intriguing enough to keep the viewer engaged throughout. In a capitalist society, how does one come to value a human life? While obvious, “Worth” ultimately reminds us that the answer to such a question involves much more than dollars and cents.