As we approached the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Sara Colangelo’s Netflix film Worth, starring Michael Keaton, Amy Ryan and Stanley Tucci, presented as an emotional, untold story, led by a high-accredited cast asking audiences the question ‘What is life worth?’. In the end, much like Keaton’s character, it seems to face its own impossible task and unfortunately falls short.
Worth brings us the previously untold story of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, created by the Air Transportation Safety and System Stabilization Act. Ken Feinberg (Keaton) is appointed as Special Master and, together with Camille Biros (Ryan), faces the impossible task of administering the fund and assigning a dollar value to the lives of the 9/11 victims. While that seems like a dry, legal drama, filled with discussions of numbers, algorithms and percentages, its a part of the impact of these attacks that are largely unknown.
To try and combat the dryness, Max Borenstein (known for Godzilla vs Kong) tries to tell the stories of those left behind and the effect the attacks and loss of loved ones have had. These are some of the strongest emotional moments in the film, as you’d expect. But as the movie continues they seem to be surface-level accounts. No particular story or particular name is memorable. It feels as though out of 7000-plus victims, Colangelo and Borenstein picked a ‘representative’ of each ‘category’. As a result, while the emotions are strong and we feel for every character presented, the depth of sorrow that could have been achieved for these people isn’t there. It also reduces the characters to an almost stereotypical level. A mother cries, a father gets angry, a sister’s eyes get misty and a brother is furious. We also get to see the immigrant group grateful for their pitiful payout, while the rich white lawyers threaten Keaton with court action if their payout isn’t increased.
But we do meet Karen, the widow of a New York firefighter. Laura Benanti’s portrayal of this tired-grief stricken widow is exceptional. But her story is rushed and the additional trauma of adding a ‘mystery affair’ towards the end of the film seems there to purely show another aspect of the trouble of the fund.
If telling the legal, economic and personal stories wasn’t enough for this film we meet Charles Wolf (Tucci), whose wife perished in the attacks. We meet Tucci in the opening, don’t see him until one scene 20 minutes later, and then he’s a powerful force in the last 20 minutes. Wolf’s story is captivating. He leads the charge against the unfairness of the bill and the fund. He has an incredible history of advocacy, both before and after 9/11. But it took some extra reading to learn this about him. Tucci’s performance is outstanding of course. Whenever he is on screen his gravitas outshines even Keaton and Ryan. But he doesn’t have much of a story to tell or much space to use his incredible acting chops.
Overall the acting is by far the strongest part of the film. The script is lacking in depth, it’s a big step from writing for a monster flick to an emotional-legal-political-drama, but Keaton, Ryan and Tucci are as strong as you would expect. Benanti’s performance adds a realism that represents all victims and loved ones. The rest of the dialogue roles on as you would expect, without any deep commentary on the question posed in the opening ‘What is a life worth?’.
Colangelo’s directing swings between basic storytelling and attempted-artistic, with varying success. Most notable is a fondness for framing the main character to the side of the screen. While in many cases it worked to highlight the rest of the setting (the wall of missing posters or the absence of another character), it occasionally detracted from the presence of having such high-quality actors on screen.
The stories that Worth is trying to tell are incredible stories: the administration of a fund which can not conceivably work; the fallout of the 9/11 attacks for those left behind and who are asked to ‘move on’; and the man who takes on the high-powered lawyers who are enacting a bill brought down from congress. There are moments where you’re engaged in the task Feinberg and Biros are facing and the incredible process they must go through. There are times when your eyes might start to mist over with emotion, particularly widow Karen. There are opportunities to root for the work of those fighting against the fund, led by Worth. But there isn’t the time or the scope to tell all of those stories to the level they deserve.
A Keaton vs Tucci movie would have been captivating, directly pitting the distant Feinberg against the ‘man of the people’ Wolf. A Keaton vs ‘the people’ film contrasting the emotionless lawyer against the distraught and hurting ‘claimants’ could have been exceptional.
The movie is based on Ken Feinberg’s own book and while there’s obviously been ‘Hollywood’ drama added the movie may have suffered from trying to add too much.
There’s a lot more to be said about Worth and we’ve got a full podcast episode discussing it, which you can listen to here. Overall it’s a fascinating story to be told but the movie falls short.