About midway through fact-based legal drama Worth, Michael Keaton, playing Ken Feinberg, the lawyer tasked with deciding how best to compensate the families of those killed in the 9/11 attacks, expresses frustration with the unenviable process. A smart, rational man who can easily captivate either a room of hard-to-impress suits or a classroom full of law students with his words, he’s suddenly found himself out of depth when speaking to people consumed with grief. “I don’t know what to say,” he says to his wife, played by Talia Balsam. “Sometimes there isn’t anything,” she replies.
He’s not incapable of humanity but his job hasn’t always required him to prioritise it and now when dealing with a tragedy of such staggering magnitude and the many fractured lives it’s left behind, he’s adrift, forced to rethink and retrain, to talk less and listen more, to understand that sometimes nothing will make it better. Feinberg, a specialist in dispute resolution, was used to calculating how much a life is worth by following the rule of the law. After the many lives lost on September 11th, Feinberg felt a need to do something and when his firm was one of a small number approached by the government, he pushed himself to the front of the line. His job was to allocate the right funds to the right people affected by the attacks and confidently, he developed an equation that would use financial statuses to justly distribute moneys. But how does something so structured allow for the complications of such an event?
It’s a fascinatingly complex subject and one which the film avoids tidily packaging for easy consumption. Director Sara Colangelo keeps things murky and difficult as she did in her last film, the criminally underseen psychodrama The Kindergarten Teacher, with a script from Max Borenstein that has us constantly questioning both the morals and the logistics. It’s a weighty topic and one that could have been adapted into an overly dry procedural but instead, we’re forever reminded of the human cost. It’s a film aching with grief but one that chooses not to rely on an overload of sentiment, instead it’s the gently devastating details that pierce through, mostly shared via a series of crushing testimonials from loved ones who lost someone that day. It’s the most effective film I’ve seen to date on the tragedy of 9/11 while also being one of the most sensitive and restrained. There’s barely any footage of the attacks and in one scene, when Feinberg is working while his wife watches news on the political and global fallout, he leaves the room, taking us with him, a sign that this is a story about people first and foremost.
Colangelo is a thoughtful, careful film-maker with a keen eye for the specifics of human behaviour and thus populates Worth with living, breathing, emoting people on both sides of the desk. Keaton is on career best form here as a man quietly struggling with a job he entirely underestimated, recalculating everything he thought he knew about his job and what the law means to him. It’s an unflashy performance, the kind that could be too understated for awards attention, much of which will probably be directed at Stanley Tucci, playing a man whose wife died and who is aggravated by the way the fund is being managed. He’s an actor who has grown accustomed to stealing scenes in a supporting role and in the few he has here, including one virtuosic in-office monologue, he’s never been better. The scenes between the pair, as they debate their idea of morality and justice, are exceptional. There’s also excellent work from Amy Ryan, especially in her scenes trying to figure out how to compensate the legally unprotected boyfriend of a man who died in the towers, and Broadway actor Laura Benanti, as a mother figuring out the best way to honour her late firefighting husband.
It’s all so human and messy and it’s refreshing to see a director that doesn’t shy away from such complexity with Colangelo crafting a film that’s every bit as nuanced as the subject at hand. In the final scenes, Worth falls into formulaic territory for a brief crowd-pleasing moment but after such subtlety, it’s hard to fault a little indulgence. It premieres at Sundance without a distributor attached as of writing but it’s a film that deserves to be widely seen and appreciated, as tough as it might be in certain scenes, a valid reminder of not only the tragedy itself but of the tragedy of those left behind.
Worth is released on 27 August in US and UK cinemas, and on 3 September on Netflix.