‘Worth’ Review: Appraising Lives

The central question of “Worth” is whether it’s possible to reduce a life to a dollar value. The film, directed by Sara Colangelo (the American remake of “The Kindergarten Teacher”), dramatizes the creation of the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund, which the federal government established after the attacks to limit lawsuits against the airlines. The lawsuits’ downstream effects, the reasoning went, could sink the United States economy.

“Worth” follows Kenneth R. Feinberg (an excellent, Boston-accented Michael Keaton), the lawyer appointed as the special master of the fund, through the two-year process of defining the project’s parameters and of getting potential plaintiffs to sign on.

Notwithstanding skepticism from others, including Camille Biros (Amy Ryan), the business manager of Feinberg’s firm, it takes some time for the film’s Feinberg to understand he has underestimated the grief of the bereaved. Cold and imperious, he barely gets a word in at his first town hall with the victims. He discovers he won’t be able to farm out every interview or clerical assignment. A man who shuts out the world by listening to opera on headphones, he will have to leave his rarefied comfort zone.

Even assessing “Worth” as entertainment feels fraught. Only survivors can judge whether its Hollywoodized simplifications are appropriate. The screenplay, by Max Borenstein, substantially funnels the breadth of criticism directed at Feinberg into the character of Charles Wolf (a superb Stanley Tucci), who, as he did in real life, runs a website demanding fixes to the fund. The other potential beneficiaries are composites. Laura Benanti plays a firefighter’s wife whose husband left more obligations than she knew. Andy Schneeflock appears as a man whose same-sex partner died in the Pentagon attack. The deceased’s parents and Virginia law don’t recognize the relationship.

With most characters standing in for swaths of people who didn’t fit Feinberg’s formulations, “Worth” itself risks reducing individuals to types. Still, it’s probably impossible to make a mainstream movie without such streamlining, let alone to make a movie like “Worth,” on a subject that is not only challenging but superficially too technocratic for a two-hour movie. There are not many classic films about heroic legal settlements.

For all the ways in which it might give short shrift to the politics or policy of the fund, “Worth” is uncommonly moving by the standards of biopics and certainly by the standards of movies that risk addressing 9/11 so overtly. Colangelo directs with what appears to be conscious restraint, in ways by turns calculated and powerful. She keeps the faces of figures who will die in the attacks just out of view as they leave their spouses for work the morning of Sept. 11. She doesn’t re-create images of the burning towers except in a reflection in Feinberg’s train window. A lengthy pan gradually reveals the size of a wall of missing-persons posters.

The principal performances are uniformly strong, even with actors who do not resemble their real-life counterparts. Is it possible to reduce such complexities to an absorbing procedural? “Worth” argues yes.

Rated PG-13. Trauma from the attacks. Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes. Watch on Netflix.

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