Putting a price on lives: ‘Worth’ follows government’s effort to compensate families of 9/11 victims

Stanley Tucci in in a scene from “Worth.” (Courtesy of Netflix)

You can’t put a price on a human life – until the times when that’s exactly what one must do.

Consider the families of the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the compensation packages offered by the government. Should the childless widow of a bartender at the Windows of the World restaurant receive the same amount as the family of a CFO who had four children? Is it right to even ask such questions?

Director Sara Colangelo’s well-intentioned and well-acted but unfortunately dry and slow-paced “Worth” is based on the true story of the attorney who volunteered for the job nobody else wanted – the “special master” who led the legal team that determined the financial worth of each victim of 9/11 and had to convince the families the settlement offers were fair.

Laura Benanti, left, and Michael Keaton in a scene from “Worth.” (Courtesy of Netflix)

Less than two weeks after 9/11, Congress approved the Sept. 11th Victim Compensation Fund, but it would take effect only if at least 80% of the families signed on and effectively waived their right to sue the airlines. (The airline lobby considered the bill vital to its survival, claiming lawsuits would drive airlines out of business and would have a ripple effect destroying the economy.) Michael Keaton plays Ken Feinberg, a suit-and-tie policy wonk who is brilliant with numbers and the law but is lacking in emotional intelligence – which is brought home in a disastrous town hall meeting with victims’ families and friends, including some firefighters who nearly shout him out of the building. Complicating matters is the constant presence of an activist widower named Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci), who has picked apart the government’s proposal and has set up a website called FixTheFund. Keaton and Tucci are tremendous together in their numerous scenes, as these two learned, decent men who share a love of opera find ways to agree to disagree without making it personal.

Amy Ryan is solid as ever as Feinberg’s second in command, and Shunori Ramanathan is wonderful as a new associate in the firm who just missed being in the World Trade Center on 9/11. As Feinberg and his team keep track of the number of sign-ups on a whiteboard (a device that seems more suited to a movie about an election), we learn the stories of some of the survivors, including a man who learns he’ll get nothing because his home state doesn’t recognize gay unions, and a firefighter’s wife who doesn’t want any money at all – just assurances her husband’s name and heroics won’t be forgotten. Mostly, though, “Worth” is a procedural and a character study, as Feinberg finally steps out from behind his desk and the comfort of his calculations to hear the stories of these families.

There’s no doubting Ken Feinberg is a special kind of person and attorney; he has handled victim compensation cases tied to the shootings in Sandy Hook, Aurora, Orlando and Virginia Tech, as well as scandals involving the Catholic Church and Penn State, and many, many others. Keaton ladles on the Massachusetts accent a bit too thick, but he’s always a compelling screen presence, and he turns in fine work, as do Tucci, Ryan and the strong supporting cast.

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