Worth (Netflix)

A new angle on 9/11 that is well worth a watch.

Review by Amanda Ellison

Judiciously timed by Netflix to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, Worth poses an unanswerable question: Is it possible to financially quantify a human life?

Set up in the wake of the catastrophic terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, the 9/11 Victims’ Compensation Fund was established by an act of Congress to help alleviate the situations of victims’ families, while providing an alternative to suing – and ultimately decimating – the two American airlines involved. Michael Keaton plays Kenneth Feinberg, the seasoned Bostonian lawyer who is tasked with creating a formula for compensating eligible claimants and supervising the two-year process. Feinberg is a well-meaning if somewhat cold and detached character who advocates objectivity. He lives a rarefied existence, rarely coming into contact with the victims, and taking refuge in classical music and the architectural plans for the house he is having constructed. The attorney is not new to this kind of hard-headed problem-solving, except in one regard: scale. From the outset, Feinberg acknowledges that there is no ‘winning’ yet stubbornly clings to the notion of a ‘one size fits all’ solution. Assisting him is attorney Camille Biros (Amy Ryan), a rather more personable and empathetic representative of the legal profession, whose guidance is crucial in adding a human touch to Feinberg’s decision-making.

In order for the Fund to be viable, Feinberg must ensure that his mandate of 80% of potential plaintiffs stake their claim by 3 December 2003. Yet from the very first meeting with the bereaved he strikes the wrong chord. With emotions heightened, the gathering vocalise the salient issue: What makes a firefighter’s life less valuable than an affluent CEO’s? Who decides the worth of each deceased individual, and on what basis? Feinberg’s response is left wanting; the crowd bays for blood.  Feinberg is rescued from this debacle by the rational voice of 9/11 widower Charles Wolf (rendered eminently likeable by a skilled Stanley Tucci performance), who later disseminates flyers promoting his ‘Fix the Fund’ blog and reveals to Feinberg that he is set to be his ‘biggest critic’. Musician Wolf skirts around the periphery of the narrative, providing a counterpoint to Feinberg’s clinical persona – and with Wolf’s widespread support, it looks increasingly likely that Feinberg will fail in his mission.

Worth is compelling viewing: performances are superb and the subject is treated intelligently. Screenwriter Max Borenstein and director Sara Colangelo ensure a broad perspective, from the corporate law offices to the inside of victims’ homes, resisting the temptation to revert to graphic images of the towers falling – the wall of persons-missing posters at the scene adequately convey the magnitude and the horror. Also impressive is the time that is given to hearing victims’ stories, to the range of situations that were borne of the tragedy. It is only when Feinberg starts sitting in on these meetings – somewhat shamed by Wolf – that he begins to understand what most others already knew: behind every formulaic calculation is a personal tragedy.

Nevertheless, this movie does have a certain smack of the Hollywood treatment.  The countdown to the deadline adds a dash of dramatic suspense, despite the predictable outcome. And how likely is it that Feinberg is completely transformed á la Ebenezer Scrooge on the basis of his association with Wolf? Isn’t it more likely that this is an expedient move on Feinberg’s part, designed to encourage Wolf to publicly announce that the Fund has been ‘fixed’? Or is this perhaps too cynical an interpretation? What is certainly true is that Feinberg and Biros went on to calculate compensation formulae for many subsequent disasters.

Ultimately, Worth is a fine film that tells a story in need of being told – but don’t expect any answers to that unanswerable question.