What is life worth? This question is posed many times in Sara Colangelo’s biographical drama, Worth. It is posed by its subject Ken Feinberg, who was the lawyer behind the payout for the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. The film focuses on Feinberg and his crew as they are tasked with compensating victim’s families while trying their best to remain impartial and most of all, fair. However, it almost proves impossible as bureaucracy, politics, and cynicism pile up against them, halting their efforts. For what is an important part of history, it doesn’t exactly prove to be an interesting (or even necessary) film.
Feinberg (Michael Keaton) is a numbers-obsessed attorney who takes more value in the compensation of victims than the victims’ lives and feelings themselves. After the 9/11 attacks, he is tasked with the newly founded fund to help those effected. As he soon realizes, money doesn’t fix everything, and is certainly not enough to heal the families. As he, Camille Biros (Amy Ryan), and his team fight their way to try and find a solution to please everyone, angry widower Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci) protests it. Feinberg quickly learns it is impossible to please everyone, but more beneficial to please the right people.
While the film’s topic is important and the subject is interesting, it doesn’t seem to have the ingredients for an engrossing movie. Biopics are notorious for falling into formulaic category and Worth unfortunately joins it in the ranks. The problem is not necessarily the story itself, but perhaps the drama within it – or lack of it. Though there is a good bit at stake – the money that will eventually go towards the victims’ families – but the way in which the film operates does not enforce any such drama enough to make the audience truly care.
This is a shame because the subject is a fascinating and unfortunately a forgotten story. What the team were able to pull off despite so many people being against them is inspiring and a moment that should be cemented in history. However, perhaps it just does not have the makings for a compelling narrative film. Maybe it would have been better suited as a well-executed documentary, particularly if still it included the best, most emotional part in Worth: accounts from the victims’ families.
This is where Worth truly shines, in its scenes where Feinberg’s team are hearing out the tragic accounts from victims’ families. Their descriptions of how they found out about the incident and how their lives have gone on in the days since are eye opening and heartbreaking. These are touching moments that are not there simply to tug heartstrings, but to realize the harsh reality of what this tragedy was like for those who experienced it firsthand. After hearing this, one understands how the offer of money can truly sound like an insult. A life isn’t worth mere physical currency. This is, of course, the point that Wolf is making and that Feinberg ultimately understands. However, the rest of the film just does not stand up to these few scenes, which are arguably its strongest points.
Apart from those scenes, Worth shines elsewhere in its performances. Keaton and Tucci are always a treat to see on the screen, but their nuanced performances here especially prove successful. Both of their turns tend to be quiet and distilled, and seem to be paying respect for their real-life counterparts as well as the real-life victims. Ryan is both commanding and inspiring in a supporting role, a suitable help for Feinberg as well as a guiding voice. An unsung performance is Laura Benanti’s turn as Karen, a widow whose story and life afterwards seem to connect to Feinberg more than the others.
With an all-star cast and phenomenal direction, Worth should at least have been the perfect Oscar-bait style recounting that would please a large number of viewers. Sadly, there isn’t enough material to work with and it never quite finds its footing. Despite this, the film still manages to treat its subject matter and those who experienced it with great respect. If anything, that makes it all worth it.