(director: Sara Colangelo; screenwriter: Max Borenstein; cinematographer: Pepe Avila del Pino; editor: Julia Bloch; music: Nico Muhly; cast: Michael Keaton(Ken Feinberg), Amy Ryan (Camille Biros), Stanley Tucci (Charles Wolf), Talia Balsam (Dede Feinberg), Shunori Ramanathan (Priya Khundi), Laura Benanti (Karen Donato), Chris Tardio (Frank Donato), Victor Slezak (AG Ashcroft), Ato Blankson-Wood (Darryl Barnes), Tate Donovan (Lee Quinn); Runtime: 116; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers; Max Borenstein, Marc Butan, Bard Dorros, Anthony Katagas, Sean Sorensen: MadRiver Features/Netflix; 2020)
“Although well-crafted, informative and well-acted by Keaton, the shortcoming of the humanistic film is that it can’t answer the basic but impossible question it asks about the worth of a life.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
The historical true story on the 9/11 tragedy, is hardly one you would expect to be entertain,ing, and you would be right. It’s directed with an earnestness by Sara Colangelo (“The Kindergarten Teacher”/”Little Accidents”) and is written by Max Borenstein with a full barrage of dialogue. It asks the legal question how do you put a monetary value on a life taken.
The film bases its drama on the responses of the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund established after the terrorists attack on 9/11 to limit lawsuits against the airlines so they don’t go bankrupt (therefore it was not designed to be fair to the victims in their hopes of getting from Congress a just compensation for their loss). Even worse, the bill ties the families’ compensation to the lost income of the vic. Thereby if rich that income could be in the millions, but if poor the person would be inadequately compensated based on potential earning power lost.
Ken Feinberg (Michael Keaton) is the Boston lawyer/accountant appointed as the special master of the fund. His trying effort is to work the process and to get all the potential plaintiffs to sign on. Feinberg also provided the same service of putting a price tag on the tragedies in places such as Sandy Hook, Aurora, Virginia Tech and Orlando, and presented spreadsheets for victims of the Boston Bombing, the BP oil spill, Agent Orange, asbestos, bad breast implants, bad car ignitions, Boeing 737s, the Catholic Church and Penn State.
The sharp lawyer at first doesn’t understand how much grief the families of the dead have in this tragedy, and his first town hall meeting with the bereaved doesn’t go well. In ensuing meetings he will be forced to hear them out and not make arbitrary moves without them knowledge, as he puts up a website to show his stances.
Feinberg is aided by his team of lawyers (Shunori Ramanathan and Ato Blankson-Wood) while challenged somewhat by his second-in-command, his business manager assistant in his firm, Camille Biros (Amy Ryan), who openly is sympathetic to the immigrant vics and their lawyers clamoring for a bigger payoff.
The difficult process involving more than 7,000 families takes two-years to complete, and is shown to be a difficult task few other lawyers would and could do. To explain himself to an even larger segment of the public, he wrote a book, “What is Life Worth?.” But the film fails to answer that impossible question raised in the book and instead shows how the calculating hard-nosed lawyer allowed his heart to gradually influence him as he slowly relaxed enough to be more gentle.
The widower community activist Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci) runs a website (FixTheFund.org.). He wants the fund to be more generous to the families of the vics and goes head-to-head, in a quiet and dignified manner in his confrontation with Feinberg. Other interested parties include Kathy Donato (Laura Benanti), whose fireman husband lost his life on 9/11 and left more debts than she knew. She argues through her reps for a greater payment, while in a showdown with Feinberg he’s loudly heckled by FDNY workers who say all human lives should be valued equally. Something Feinberg never said he agrees with during this process.
“Worth” (maybe too gingerly in its effort to seem even-handed) skirts the moral issues raised and instead focuses on the countdown clock to get things done in time. And, as if a sports film drama instead of a real-life ethical humanistic drama, fixates on whether Feinberg can get 80% of the families signed to the deal before the December 2003 deadline (which implies victory for the government team, but not a sense that justice was done).
Although well-crafted, informative and well-acted by Keaton, the shortcoming of the humanistic film is that it can’t answer the basic but impossible question it asks about the worth of a life and what’s fair compensation for the families of the 9/11 attack.
REVIEWED ON 9/11/2021 GRADE: B-