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"WORTH"
(2021) (Michael Keaton, Amy Ryan) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A team of lawyers try to determine a settlement value for the families of those who lost a loved one in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
PLOT:

The law firm run by Ken Feinberg (MICHAEL KEATON) is well-known for being able to negotiate financial settlements in high-profile civil cases. So much so that following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Ken offers his firm's services to the U.S. government and airline industry. Using a formula to determine the financial value of those who perished, Ken ends up serving as the Special Master of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.

With the help of his employees -- including long-time aid Camille Biros (AMY RYAN) and former student turned recent hire Priya Khundl (SHUNORI RAMANATHAN) -- Ken's role is to compensate the families who lost loved ones in the attack in exchange for their agreement that they won't sue the airlines.

Needing to get eighty percent involvement, Camille, Priya, and others begin interviewing those family members that include Karen Donato (LAURA BENANTI) whose firefighter husband perished in the Twin Towers, leaving her as a widow with young kids. Her brother-in-law, Frank (CHRIS TARDIO), wants Ken to include shortcomings in the fire department in his report, while high-end lawyer Lee Quinn (TATE DONOVAN) wants him to compensate the family members of high earner victims at a greater rate than those of blue-collar workers.

None of which sits well with activist Charles Wolf (STANLEY TUCCI) who lost his wife in the attacks and has found too many flaws in the fund. With him ending up the unofficial leader for many of those upset families, Ken must contend with all of that, government pressure, and a deadline to hit that target number before the end of 2003.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10

Over the past year and a half, we've seen elected officials, economists, TV pundits, and regular people arguing about the monetary effects of Covid-19, namely as related to the pros and cons of government-ordered shutdowns and the effect that has on the economy versus lives lost. While the virus and its repercussions are new, the debate about the value of life has been debated for some time.

In a recent NPR report I read, it's noted that back in the early '80s, the government came up with the calculation that a human life -- or death if you want to look at it from the other angle -- was worth $300,000. They used that to determine how the cost of implementing any new regulation would compare to the cumulative worth of lives saved. In short, if it cost more than those lives, it was tabled. But if it came in below that figure -- which has now been adjusted to around $10 million per person -- it might make it through the approval and implementation process.

Of course, the value of life has also been the subject of wrongful death lawsuits, with maybe the most famous -- and certainly the one that hit people not even directly involved the hardest from an emotional standpoint -- was the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. That's when the U.S. government -- hoping to keep several airlines from being sued into oblivion -- stepped in to create a taxpayer-fueled fund to pay families of those who lost loved ones in exchange for them not going to court.

While the intentions were sound -- to get those survivors money as soon as possible rather than have things legally tied up for years, not to mention keeping the airlines, and thus the U.S. economy alive -- the Fund was fraught with issues. The main one being the question of what is a lost life worth and specifically, if that amount should be even across the board or prorated based on current at that time salaries and projected future earnings. Throw in lawyers, activists, grieving family members, and the battle between empathetic compassion and objective number crunching, and the whole thing became a mess, and one with a ticking deadline.

Such is the premise of "Worth," a well-made, solidly acted, and often emotionally affecting drama featuring Michael Keaton as real-life attorney Ken Feinberg who was assigned as Special Master of the Fund in 2001 with the end of 2003 as the cutoff point to get eighty percent of those families to sign on.

After an opening audio montage featuring recordings of family members recounting their losses from that fateful fall day, we meet Feinberg as he's teaching law at Georgetown, specifically that of what a life is worth in the eyes of the law. Following a brief scene where we see Karen Donato (Laura Benati) getting breakfast ready for her three young children as her firefighter husband rushes out for work, we return to Ken on a commuter train, initially oblivious to the worried chaos that's erupting on phones all around him. He then spots the smoke plume rising from the Pentagon and knows, as we do via hindsight, that the world has changed forever.

Realizing the economic fallout that's about to occur and knowing his prowess in negotiating civil corporate settlements, he offers his firm's services pro bono to the U.S. government (and, by default, the airline industry). With his staff -- ranging from longtime aid Camille Biros (Amy Ryan) to fresh face (and former student) Priya Khundl (Shunori Ramanathan) -- having to conduct in-person interviews with grieving family members, Ken stays above the emotional fray.

All of which means he's not ready for the reaction to his cold and calculating public appearance in front of surviving family members, including Karen's firefighter brother-in-law, Frank (Chris Tardio), as well as activist and recently widowed Charles Wolff (a terrific Stanley Tucci) who's found troubling issues and problems with the fund as currently calculated. Ken eventually finds himself between a rock and a hard place, especially once he can no longer avoid and ignore the emotional impact of what he's trying to do.

I have no idea how much of the screenplay by Max Borenstein sticks to the facts and whether any artistic license has been taken (such as with the family members portrayed), and director Sara Colangelo must contend with the episodic nature of the story as it sprawls out over two years during its nearly two-hour runtime. Despite that, I found it engaging and effective, with the pivotal event still being quite the gut punch despite us now being two decades removed from it.

In the end, and likely to no one's surprise, the film comes around to the point that a life is worth more than just an average number, a point that should be acknowledged by economists, number crunchers, and politicians who often don't think about or try to ignore the human stories involved in such matters. "Worth" is definitely worth seeing and rates as a 7 out of 10.




Reviewed August 27, 2021 / Posted September 3, 2021


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