Sunday 19 September 2021

Movie Review: Worth (2020)

A drama about the value of life, Worth delves into the crass process of calculating a monetary amount to compensate victims of an atrocity.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, lawyer Kenneth Feinberg (Michael Keaton) is appointed by the White House to negotiate a settlement agreement with the victims' families, in lieu of crippling lawsuits against the airlines. Working with his law partner Camille Biros (Amy Ryan), Kenneth's initial approach is cold-hearted and formula-based.

But the families' emotions are raw, and Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci), who lost his wife in the attacks, organizes them to oppose and improve the proposed settlement. Kenneth's team members uncover difficult individual situations impossible to fit within a formula, including a gay partner not recognized as family and a firefighter with a complicated domestic life. Meanwhile, lawyer Lee Quinn (Tate Donovan) argues for much higher settlements for families of high-income executives. Gradually, Feinberg starts to understand a different approach will be required.

Based on real events as recounted in Feinberg's book, Worth examines the conflict between the need for an emotions-free legal settlement and the passionate turmoil of families reeling after an inexplicable and catastrophic loss. The plot lacks traditional tension between good and bad, and the blood-sucking lawyer sub-text is avoided when Feinberg accepts his assignment on a pro bono basis. The film faces several other narrative obstacles: an empathy-challenged corporate suit is a poor protagonist choice for a heart-wrenching 9/11 drama, and any substantive discussions about actuarial formulae are more than likely to induce sleep.

To their credit, director Sara Colangelo and writer Max Borenstein navigate around these pitfalls with decent agility. They find refuge in victims' family members telling their stories almost straight to the camera, and Feinberg's team of junior lawyers learning to listen and tugging on their boss to modify his approach.

The performances also help. Michael Keaton invests in Feinberg as a confident but also apathetic lawyer who thinks he has all the answers, only gradually awakening to the enormous human scale and complexity of this particular challenge. If Keaton's Feinberg is the drama's brain, then Stanley Tucci as Wolf is the heart, pumping effort into creating a difficult bridge between the families and the lawyers, and eventually orienting Feinberg towards demonstrated compassion.

Worth is more curious than compelling. It's a corner of the 9/11 tragedy worth exploring, insofar as cinema and the process of hammering out compensation agreements can co-exist.

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