REVIEW: What is a life ‘Worth’? Michael Keaton has to decide in emotional 9/11 Netflix movie
Sep 3, 2021, 6:20 AM | Updated: 9:09 am
SALT LAKE CITY — As we approach the 20th anniversary of the attacks on 9/11, the compelling new movie “Worth” tells the story about the man appointed to oversee the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. It’s based on Kenneth Feinberg’s memoir called What is Life Worth?: The Unprecedented Effort to Compensate the Victims of 9/11.
The movie follows attorney and renowned mediator Feinberg, played by Michael Keaton. Following the attacks in 2001, the Attorney General appoints him as head of the newly-created September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. Congress created the fund to help out families of the victims, and to prevent lawsuits they feared would decimate the American economy.
But the catch is that in order for this Fund to work as it’s designed, Feinberg must get 80-percent of the eligible next-of-kin to sign on to fund and give up their right to sue.
Complicating things even more for Feinberg is Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci). Wolf’s wife died at the World Trade Center and he is not a fan of the formula that Feinberg and his firm have come up with that essentially says some lives are more valuable than others. Wolf’s community organizing skills, along with an opportunistic attorney (Tate Donovan) for some rich victims are preventing Feinberg and his team from getting the necessary signatures.
I was fascinated by the questions this movie raised: What is the worth of a human life? Are some lives worth more than others? From a purely logical standpoint, the lost earnings of a millionaire CEO at the World Trade Center are going to be higher than the lost earnings of, say, a janitor. Families of both victims miss their loved one, but should they both receive the same compensation?
If you have to create a baseline formula just to get an idea of how much this is going to cost, then at some point you have to draw a line. But, where is that line? No matter where it is, someone will be on the wrong side of it. Also, does money actually help people move on after suffering a loss like that?
Then, in addition, Feinberg and his firm’s head of operations, Camille Biros (Amy Ryan) find that they’re dealing with complexities they could never have imagined: A domestic partner that doesn’t qualify as a beneficiary because of his state’s laws; a widow who’s late husband had a second family no one else knew about, but those children also qualify as beneficiaries.
So, no part of this thankless job was easy for Feinberg and his team. I thought Keaton did a great job of turning Feinberg’s initial pragmatic approach and emotional distance—I mean you’d have to have that to do this job, wouldn’t you?—into compassion as he finally involves himself in the personal stories of the victims.
Stanley Tucci was as solid as ever. His character Charles is not angry at Feinberg or what he is trying to do, but Charles is also unwilling to allow the wrong thing to be done—no matter how the other side tries to justify it.
I applaud director Sara Colangelo and screenwriter Max Borenstein for presenting the story in a way that allows you to sympathize those on both sides of the formula, for giving a nuanced look at how grief can affect us, and for showing how powerful empathy and human connection can be. Of course, it’s even more compelling because this story is more than just a hypothetical philosophical argument, these were true events.
As for warnings, “Worth” is rated PG-13 for some language and thematic elements. The run time is just under two hours. It’s probably safe for most ages, content-wise, but I think the older you are, the more this movie will resonate, especially if you lived through 9/11. Regardless, the movie could trigger memories and emotions that may not have been brought to the surface for a while.
“Worth” asks hard questions. Questions to which there are not any easy answers. But those questions are worth exploring and done well in this emotionally compelling movie anchored by some good directing and great acting.
“Worth” is streaming exclusively on Netflix, and Netflix is allowing educators to show the movie to their classes if they so choose.