When terrorists took down the two towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 it shook an entire nation. But for the families and loved ones of the 2,977 people who died, their lives were forever changed. These families are an essential part of director Sara Colangelo’s new Netflix feature “Worth”. Her film debuted way back at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and finally hits the streaming platform this weekend.
Based on a true story, this absorbing legal drama follows Ken Feinberg (Michael Keaton), an attorney who takes on the daunting task of heading the government’s September 11th Victim Consolation Fund. As Special Master his unenviable job is to figure out how much compensation each victim’s family would receive. It’s a job no one wants, but it’s something Ken thinks he can do to help. He has noble intentions, even insisting on working pro bono. But he’s someone who tends to look at numbers more than people which proves to be the wrong approach.
On the surface the victim’s fund sounds virtuous, but there are other motives at work. The government hopes to avoid crippling civil lawsuits against airline companies that could potentially crater the economy. So the grieving family would get tax-free money from the government in exchange for their pledge to never sue the airlines involved. Ken gets caught in the middle of an array of conflicts he hadn’t accounted for.
Ken’s formula for calculating payments is based on a number of factors. But he quickly learns it isn’t as easy as throwing some figures on a check. Who’s eligible; who gets how much; where does Ken and his team draw the line? The process proves messy and with countless human variables factoring in. It’s made worse by Ken underestimating the still raw emotions. In his efforts to be neutral he comes across as cold and aloof. It quickly puts him in the crosshairs of the rightfully skeptical public.
Colangelo and writer Max Borenstein do a good job of defining Ken as more than some uncaring federal suit. Like all of us he felt the jolt of 9/11. As many did, he sat up through the night after the attack watching the news in quiet shock. He has a compassionate heart, but it’s lost under his by-the-book business-like exterior. He talks more than he listens. He focuses so much on the task at hand that he misses the human component.
While much of the film plays like a captivating procedural, “Worth” is also about about Ken’s evolution as a human being. His encounters with various families leaves a lasting impact and causes him to change the way he looks at his process. The biggest influence is Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci), an advocate on behalf of the victims whose own wife died in the 9/11 attacks. “Everything about this fund offends me,” Charles says. When their together, the two give us some of the film’s best scenes.
Calangelo impresses most with her ability to balance the enlightening legal proceedings with the heavier emotional elements of the story. She brings a sensitive and empathetic touch while also showing a remarkable amount of restraint. There’s no big “Oscar moment” and the movie never panders to awards season voters the way some weighty dramas tend to do. Instead she trusts her material and her cast led by a stellar Michael Keaton. Brandishing a thick Massachusetts accent, Keaton gives another lights-out performance. And he’s helped by great supporting work from Tucci, Amy Ryan, Shunori Ramanthan and a scene-steaming Laura Benanti.
“Worth” picks out and then leans a little too heavily on a couple of victim’s stories, milking them dry in an effort to drive home certain messages. And there are a handful of odd choices that stick out like a sore thumb (a phone call with then president George Bush is particularly jarring). But those few hiccups are easy to look past when the rest of the movie features such smart direction, a genuinely gripping story and a nomination-worthy Michael Keaton performance. Hopefully Netflix puts some energy into getting this movie out there. It deserves an audience. “Worth” premieres this Friday (September 3rd) on Netflix.