In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, dispute resolution specialist Kenneth Feinberg (Michael Keaton) volunteers to serve as the head of the US government’s effort to assign compensation to the families of those killed or injured. In a race against time before the legislation runs out, Feinberg clashes with victims advocate Charles Wolff (Stanley Tucci) as the Fund’s cold analytical model frequency clashes with the frayed emotions of grieving loved ones.
So, here’s one that looks like part-and-parcel of Netflix’s occasional efforts to be a respectable avenue for “prestige” pictures, with the streaming giant having picked this one up for release some time between its festival debut over 18 months ago and now. We all know the type, and certainly any American-made movie that covers the events of 9/11 in any form is going to be a deadly serious, stoic, even drab affair. How could it not? Worth attempts to take a look at the 9/11 attacks from the kind of perspective that I imagine is never likely to get much in the way of play, and while I do think it is a bit of an interesting story, it is a story told in a manner that is mostly just dull and dispiriting.
A big serious movie that really wants to sell how big and serious it is will have the scene where the main character is alone in a room staring into space with a serious expression on their face. Worth has a dozen scenes like this, between Keaton, Tucci, Amy Ryan and a host of hangers-on (Shunori Ramanthan probably the most notable, playing a woman who just avoided being in the Towers on the day in question). You can practically smell the whiff of awards-bait coming from every inch of the move, permeating every scene and making you wonder if there isn’t anything else on. I think it’s possible that you could accomplish a project like this in a respectful manner without needing to make the audience feel like they are at mass.
Keaton just can’t pull this off, going for a similar thing to what he did in Spotlight but not having the material to do it. The story of Worth on a character level seems to be a story of his Feinberg going from being a cold, hard unlikable number cruncher trying to fit emotional trauma into a numerical formula, to being a guy who truly empathises with what the victims and survivors of 9/11 are going through: though, no matter what, he still ends up processing their grief through a numerical formula. Getting to a slightly more fair and just numerical formula isn’t quite the standing ovation-garnerer that I think director Sara Colangelo thinks it is, and Worth really struggles getting across just why any of this is really important. The Wolff character on-screen seems to exist as the kind of humanity of the victims made manifest, but one can only roll their eyes at his seeming insistence that money isn’t important (Feinberg’s retort, that he simply can’t pretend that it isn’t, is treated like something a a villain would say).
Worth, a film that looks and is coloured as dull as you might expect from the story, script and performances, winds down to an unsatisfying climax, where the day is “saved” and Feinberg gets to learn how to be a bit of a human being by informing a grieving widow that her dead husband had a secret other family, or something. The emotional message of this film is so muddled, and at times you really feel it would have been better off as a documentary of some type, a recordation exercise where victims and survivors could tell their stories. That’s where the film actually gets you a bit: in hearing of parents who spent days at the bedside of a badly burned victim only to realise it wasn’t their son; the woman whose husband spent part of his last phone call to her, trapped in the upper levels, making a morbid joke about the buildings automated evacuation message; the undocumented who accept the lowest possible amount from the fund straight away since it’s more money than any of them are likely to make in their lifetimes; or the gay partner whose lack of a Vermont-backed marriage certificate means he’ll get absolutely nothing, no matter how evident his love for his deceased SO is.
But these are just brief windows on the larger 9/11 experience, and Worth uses them more as a poor, blunt tool of emotional manipulation in an audience that will be expecting Moneyball and getting, well, just plain statistics, wrapped in a bow that makes a bit too much of a hero out of Kenneth Feinberg. At the end of the day, it’s a story of the US government cooking up a method of paying out to the 9/11 victims so that they didn’t direct their ire on the airlines whose bankruptcy could have tanked the economy. It’s an ode to an ugly side of capitalism, dressed up as inspirational. That don’t sell. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).