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Worth

Released 2021. Director: Sara Colangelo

HAVE YOU EVER THOUGHT ABOUT HOW MUCH YOUR LIFE IS WORTH IN DOLLAR TERMS? GO AHEAD, have a think, and when you’ve settled on a price tag, consider how it might differ from those around you. Is your life worth more, or less, and how did you come to that number?

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre, nearly 3,000 lives were lost. The Victims Compensation Fund was set up to manage the laborious and complicated task of issuing financial reparation to the next of kin of those who perished.

Lest you think it was some kind of genuine magnanimity from the government, the movie tells us the motive sprang from a more cynical reason of preventing thousands of lawsuits which would invariably cripple the airline industry and set off a chain reaction to destabilise the US economy.

Heading up this committee is Ken Feinberg, played by Michael Keaton. As the Special Master, his responsibility is to determine who’s eligible, and how much. As soon as he calls for a meeting with the families of the victims, he realises it’s almost impossible to get everyone on the same page.

The anger in the room stuns him. Is the life of a firefighter who died saving lives worth less than that of a company CEO with an office at the tower? Is the worth of a human life measured by earning potential above all else? What is right? What is fair?

One of the men at the meeting is Charles Wolf, played by Stanley Tucci, whose wife died in the attack. Wolf is meticulous and detailed, a vocal critic of the fund and an advocate for the 9/11 community. Feinberg and Wolf are both men of singular vision with an astute mind towards their own number crunching exercise and in another world under different circumstances, it’s easy to imagine these two men would be best friends.

Michael Keaton has no problem convincing us he’s a good guy and he wants to get the job done to distribute money to the families. He also manages to show us Feinberg is a smart man who’s too entrenched in his own tunnel vision and a little lacking in emotional sensitivity. It’s not that he doesn’t care; it’s just that he’s aloof and not used to factor in the human variables and raw emotions in every case. In contrast, members of his team, played by Amy Ryan and Shunori Ramanathan, are able to see beyond the objectivity and connect with the people on the other side of the desk.

Although Wolf is crucial in helping Feinberg eventually change his perspective, his character is not given much in terms of an arc and remains under-developed in any dramatic sense. Tucci is stoic, articulate and rational in the face of personal grief which hardly shows and the sad thing is there’s no interest in the script to make Wolf more than a foil and contrast to Feinberg.

The personal stories of some of the victims and their families provide the movie’s true points of human interest, including the widow and brother of a fireman with a second family who try to ignore the fact to preserve his honour in a time of great loss and sadness. Then there’s the gay man whose compensation doesn’t go to his grieving partner but his estranged parents because the law at the time, like his unaccepting parents, doesn’t recognise same-sex relationships.

Time and again the overarching idea is repeated that we’re dealing with real people here, not numbers and statistics. Max Borenstein’s script is a legal procedural with ambitions but isn’t perceptive enough to take us through the emotional complexities it aims to depict, relying on some rather unsubtle suggestions. On more than one occasion, we see Feinberg listening to his enormous collection of classical music in his immaculate music room, completely engrossed. To Feinberg, his job is to prepare the perfect arrangement, putting all the pieces together like composing a symphony. We get it that the reality is far from easy to lay all the parts in place to achieve harmony, especially when he puts numbers ahead of individuals.

Worth strives to illustrate the absurdity, contradictions and monumentally challenging task of assigning a dollar value on life, let alone after a catastrophic terror attack. In the opening scene, Feinberg lectures his university class that the worth of a person’s life is not a philosophical question but an economic equation. You know by the time the movie ends it’s impossible to do what is right and what is fair in every single case this way. The build up to the feel-good ending feels like a rush job, brushing aside nuances and missing the emotional crescendo you’d naturally expect from a drama like this.


Click image above to view trailer. New window will open.