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The premise of Worth — how the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund struggled to figure out how to compensate the families of 9/11 victims for lives lost — would seem perfectly designed to keep viewers out of theaters rather than to lure them in. But there are enough diverse personalities in this unexpected film to generate a degree of interest in a subject few have probably ever thought about. A fine and uncharacteristic performance by Michael Keaton provides the main selling point for this intelligent if not entirely realized political film that emphasizes the human value of closure and pulling together in tough times.
There are now people of legal age who don’t remember 9/11 personally but nevertheless, director Sara Colangelo (Little Accidents and The Kindergarten Teacher, both previous Sundance entries) doesn’t dwell on overly vivid or extended footage repeating yet again the horrors of the dreadful day nearly 19 years ago.
Rather, her attention fixes on an attorney, Kenneth Feinberg (Keaton), a real-life mediation expert who is paged to oversee a program that, it is hoped, will provide fair compensation to families that have suddenly lost their breadwinners or other loved ones.
The subject of reimbursement and placing a monetary value on a human life is a contentious one where raw emotions are certain to further exacerbate the anger, fear and desolation caused by such an unprecedented tragedy. Colangelo and screenwriter Max Borenstein, who is mostly known for his writerly contributions to the last three Godzilla features, with one more on the way, even-handedly present the various reactions of those whose feelings are still too raw to deal with the blunt question of how much cash their parent, mate or child is worth.
It certainly behooves the government to settle upon a figure soon so the bereaved can at least receive this measure of closure. Fears of favoritism and unfairness are rampant, but Feinberg feels the pressure of coming up with an acceptable formula to prevent the government from receiving so many extreme demands that it will literally run out of money.
Despite the heightened emotions of the characters, the film itself is rather cool and sparked with relatively few extreme outbursts. But no matter how even-handed and intelligent Feinberg’s solutions might be, he has a problem: The man may be a Democrat who by nature is drawn to reasonable compromise, but he is not a good communicator — he doesn’t have the New York knack of yack, of making Joe Public feel like they’re speaking the same language. Public approval of the terms of reimbursement hovers in the low double-digits when it needs to be at 80 percent; a revolt seems not too far distant.
A likely prospect to light such a fuse appears in the form of community organizer Charles Wolfe (Stanley Tucci), who lost his wife on 9/11. This man-of-the-people type regards Feinberg with suspicion but not quite the contempt required to throw him to the lions.
Whereas many directors would ratchet this high-stakes drama up as high as possible, Colangelo plays it pretty cool. Never does she sentimentalize, pander for audience sympathy or go for easy shots. It may not be easy for a man in his mid-50s to change his ways, but Feinberg is willing to listen and learn, a good trait to have at any age.
At the same time, the pic doesn’t clearly or satisfactorily dramatize the main character’s volte face, to the point where it’s hard to understand why a man of Feinberg’s age would revise his thinking so thoroughly in terms of how to deal with a public waiting for some resolution. The answers may be there, but they don’t seem sufficient.
Although they are stylistically and emotionally quite different, there is a vital way in which Worth resembles Frank Capra’s important films from the 1930s. This has to do with the way individuals can move away from entrenched positions for the greater good, can compromise for the sake of society rather than remain stuck, and improve themselves as they help others. The writer and director don’t hit you over the head with this, but the attitude is practically a novel one at a time of such personal stubbornness, political discord and outright nastiness.
Sporting a pronounced Boston accent, Keaton deftly paints a portrait of an accomplished man who has no idea that he has much more growing he’s capable of doing. Tucci nicely underplays the gadfly who helps Feinberg open his eyes to how he might deal with those he’s meant to help.
Production company: MadRiver Pictures
Cast: Michael Keaton, Stanley Tucci, Amy Ryan, Tate Donovan, Talia Balsam, Laura Benanti
Director: Sara Colangelo
Screenwriter: Max Borenstein
Producers: Max Borenstein, Marc Butan, Bard Dorros, Anthony Katagas, Michael Keaton, Sean Sorensen, Michael Sugar
Executive producers: Amit Pandya, Andrea Scarso, Stephen Spence, Nik Bower, Deepak Nayar, Ara Keshishian, Charles Miller, Mary Aloe, Michael Becker, Dean Buchanan, Matthew B. Schmidt, Christina Papagjika, Matthew Salloway, Allen Liu
Director of photography: Pepe Avila del Pino
Production designer: Tommaso Ortino
Editor: Julia Bloch
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
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