With the 20th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks approaching, Sara Colangelo’s Worth paints a compassionate picture of the victims and their families while attempting to get into the heads of the lawyers in charge of assigning a dollar amount to the victims. While the lead trio are each superb, the host of character actors and actress recounting their lost loved ones tug at the heartstrings. Poignantly acted and directed, the film lacks the flash and grandstanding of the usual Hollywood fare, but still delivers a heartfelt message on the value of life.
Following the 9/11 attacks, to stave off the potential of economically disastrous lawsuits against the airlines, the United States Attorney General assigns respected lawyer Kenneth Feinberg (Michael Keaton) as the Special Master of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund allocated to compensate victims and their families of the attacks.
Joined by his deputy Camille Birios (Amy Ryan), Feinberg attempts to stay objective and view each case in a mathematical and analytical way, but he butts heads with activist Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci), whose wife also perished in the attacks. Wolf attempts to sway Feinberg to be more compassionate and look at the victims as people and not numbers on a spreadsheet.
All the while, Feinberg faces pressure from the lawyers of the top-earning victims as well as internal government pressure to reach the goal of 80% of the families to sign on to his fund. Straining objectivity, conscious and duty collide as he meets more victims and hears more stories where he realizes life is more than a dollar amount.
Colangelo and writer Max Borenstein are smart about how they frame this story. Brief snippets introduce our main characters and give some quick insight into what to expect. While the events surrounding the characters are dramatic, none of the film’s scenes are over-the-top or grandiose. Feinberg is not viewed as a sleaze of a lawyer, nor is Wolf as the self-righteous activist. There are measures of gray in each character, which gives the film increased humanity.
Feinberg is given this task from the government due to pressure from the airline lobby. Despite that pressure occasionally being brought to bare, the script stays away from preaching. On the opposite end, Wolf’s concerns with Feinberg’s methods touch on the ideas of corporate corruption without ever languishing on them.
The team of lawyers comes up with an objective formula based on lost earnings minus life insurance. This formula assuages some families, but offends others. While Feinberg focuses on remaining objective, Wolf pushes back. Feinberg declares the formula fair, but Wolf responds, “It isn’t just.”
In order to gain additional context, the team meets with each family individually. Each testimonial deepens the insight necessary for Feinberg and Birios to change their way of thinking and expand past the formula. The human elements perpetrate the mathematics.
Keaton dominates the narrative and doesn’t disappoint. Feinberg is shown as the ultimate type-A personality and Keaton never descends into quirks. His reliability as an actor plays as much of a part as his performance. Ryan also performs well in an underwritten role. Few directors have truly unlocked Ryan’s full potential, and she feels wasted again here.
Tucci fits into the role of Wolf like a fine coat. Despite obviously being in pain from the loss of his wife, Wolf is about justice and no one exudes the search for justice better than Tucci. His role could have easily been preachy and monologue-heavy, but Tucci keeps everything smartly restrained.
The rest of the cast also excel, especially Shunori Ramanathan as a conflicted lawyer on Feinberg’s team and Laura Benanti, who plays a conflicted widow of a firefighter. Tate Donovan plays the closest thing the film has to a villain and delightfully seethes through every scene. Each unknown actor playing a family member leaves an imprint. Some describe the loved one’s lives, some describe their deaths. Every performer does so much without going too big.
Worth gives a painful reminder of the true impact of September 11th while paying tribute to those victims and their families. The film is far too subtle and understated for awards attention, but Colangelo and her filmmaking team should stand proud at the work they have achieved. These victims deserve to have their lives memorialized, and it was certainly not done in a phony way.