I can’t believe that this weekend marks the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attack. There’s no other major disaster that’s etched in my memory like 9/11… I still remember exactly what I did when I first heard of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center. I was driving to work and while sitting in traffic I heard the morning radio DJs talking about what they thought was an accident, but of course once the second plane hit the second tower, everyone knew it was a deliberate attack.
This film started with the protagonist, Kenneth Feinberg (Michael Keaton) on a train en route to his Manhattan law firm office… at first he was oblivious with his noise-canceling headphones on, as fellow passengers were in a frenzy as they saw huge smoke coming out of the twin towers. It’s hard not to feel emotional watching the characters stare out of the train window in horror… which I think is an effective opening for a film about the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. The film is based on Feinberg’s book titled What is Life Worth?, in which the renowned mediation attorney described the eight-part plan in figuring out who gets what from the fund.
I kept thinking what a thankless and impossible job it is for anyone, I mean, as the title implies… how does one measure a human being life’s worth? Is there even such thing as ‘fair’ compensation when it comes to a loss of a human life? Not to mention the ethical issue of compensating victims/their families in exchange for their agreement not to sue the airlines. You would think Congress would have an arduous time finding a special master for the fund, but in this film, Feinberg himself volunteers to do it pro-bono. Feinberg works with his law firm’s head of operations Camille (Amy Ryan) and a team of young attorneys for the months to allocate the right ‘number’ for each victim. At first Feinberg approach things in pragmatic, logical manner… which in most business circumstances is the right way to go about it. But he soon realizes one can’t exactly apply the same economics rationale when it comes to human tragedy.
On the side of the victims, we’ve got a community organizer Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci) who lost his wife in the tower attacks. At first it appears as if Wolf was ‘rescuing’ Feinberg when a few victims berated him during the Compensation Fund meeting, but Wolf later introduced himself as his biggest nemesis. Wolf actually started a protest website called Fix The Fund as he has serious issues about it, which proved to be far more popular than the Compensation Fund website. Both Keaton and Tucci were in another biographical drama dealing with a heavy subject matter, Spotlight, but they didn’t share screen time together then. The interactions of these two very different people is one of the main highlights of the film and I can’t help but sympathize with both sides throughout the film. Given that both are such terrific character actors, their roles could’ve been flipped and it would’ve worked just as well.
Sara Colangelo, directing from a screenplay by Max Borenstein, approaches this highly-emotional subject matter with sensitivity but yet not in a heavy-handed way. There’s an appropriate amount of levity that keeps the movie from being too gloomy. In fact, I find the film quite engaging from start to finish, which is quite a feat considering the movie consist of mostly people talking in a room and not much else happening. The pace is just right in that it doesn’t rush in explaining things and allow time for mere mortals like me to process and weigh in on this complex situation. There is a lot of numbers thrown around in this movie that in a lesser film I could’ve easily been completely lost. I honestly didn’t remember much about this Victim Compensation Fund, and there are still things I’m not entirely clear about, but that’s not really the point.
I had just seen Keaton in The Protegé recently and though he is a highly versatile actor, I think he’s more effective in this role where he can emote even without saying a word. Ryan is always first rate in any film, and she believably portrays an empathetic attorney who’s deeply affected by the stories she hears from various victims. Shunori Ramanathan as Priya, one of the new hires at the firm, is quite memorable here as well as she’s the one who reaches out to Wolf during one of his community meetings.
If I have one quibble it would be the way the film focused a bit too much on a particular victim (played by Laura Benanti), a widow of one of the firefighters who perished in the tower. As it involves the dead husband’s brother and past affairs, the film descends into melodrama a bit. I suppose the filmmakers are trying to show Feinberg’s emotional transformation, but I think the interactions between him and Wolf are more compelling without resorting to over-sentimentality.
Overall though, I think Worth is a solid, poignant drama that’s carefully handled and wonderfully-acted. Now, without researching the real Feinberg, I’m not sure if he’s as likable as he’s being portrayed here. Of course he’s still to be commended for carrying out such an intricate task, facing pressure from all sides–the government/corporate bureaucracy that’s all about number-crunching and the victims who are stricken with grief. The ending tells the audience that by the end of the deadline set for the fund, $7 billion was awarded to 97% of the families. That makes Feinberg a hero for the government and especially the airlines as the families couldn’t sue them. As for the victims, well the film itself says it properly… there are no winners here.