Worth begins with a cacophony of urgent noise. Sirens, screams, crashes, panic – a hurricane of chaos that The Kindergarten Teacher director Sara Colangelo then tasks herself with sifting through over the next almost two hours. How does one even begin to make sense of what happened on 11 September 2001?
It’s a question that’s troubled many film-makers ever since the unfathomable acts of terrorism that jolted the US two decades ago, a devastating, lingering wound that Hollywood hasn’t always tried to heal with sensitivity. The technical prowess of Paul Greengrass’s United 93 couldn’t mask the grim grotesquerie of such a deeply unnecessary project while the cheap twist finale of Robert Pattinson’s romantic drama AKA secret 9/11 movie Remember Me was as ridiculous as it was distasteful. The problematic nature of the many “war on terror” films – from the masturbatory militarism of American Sniper to the since-debunked torture fantasy of Zero Dark Thirty – has also rendered them largely useless. So Colangelo’s drama, which premiered at Sundance in 2020 and has now been given a hushed release on Netflix, arrives with a trail of wreckage behind it, audiences clicking with understandable caution.
Colangelo neatly sidesteps these prior mistakes by choosing not to focus on what happened that day (she makes a conscious decision to avoid any form of recreation with extremely limited use of aftermath footage) or those whose lives were lost and instead zeroes in on the ones who were left behind, not sent away to fight a murkily reasoned war but saddled at home with incomprehensible loss. The story follows the impossible task taken on by a lawyer, Ken Feinberg (a studied, understated Michael Keaton), who, along with his emotionally conflicted team, must find a way to allocate a compensation fund to the loved ones of the victims using a rigid formula. If they don’t find a just way to do it, if they can’t persuade the 7,000-plus family members to sign up, then they risk lawsuits that could cripple the economy. But how do you place value on a life? How do you turn a father, a mother, a wife, a boyfriend, a daughter into a number?
In approaching such thorny material, Colangelo and the writer Max Borenstein find themselves in a similarly fraught predicament to Feinberg and his staff, trying to balance the need for sentiment and humanity with the practicalities and legalities of the situation. The oppressive sadness of every angle of what happened on 9/11 makes it all too easy to lean into teary theatrics, as Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center often did, but there’s something so thoughtful and delicate about how Worth deals with grief that in the film offering just a bit less, we end up feeling that much more. A scene where Stanley Tucci, as a bereaved husband, finds the plastic container that contained the chicken picante his wife left for him that day – requiring him to steady himself before peeling off the handwritten label and gently placing it on the wall – is so devastating for its quietness and specificity, that moment many of us know well when a simple trigger unleashes a wave of despair. Colangelo allows generous breathing space for a string of one-scene characters to tell their stories, of the last calls and last memories, without a heavy, heartstring-yanking swell of music and they do so without resorting to overblown histrionics. We’re with them as they share their darkest moments rather than feeling far removed. It’s almost like watching a documentary, Colangelo modeling each one on a real-life grieving family member, small details changed.
These effectively intimate, mostly heartbreaking, testimonies are contrasted with the intimidating scale of the far less personal job at hand – of figuring out a just way to administer the right money to the right person – Colangelo smartly reminding us of the bigger picture without needing to dramatically extend the canvas. Worth is a small, direct film, mostly taking place in drab corporate offices, where the grey corridors and conference rooms prioritise professionalism over emotion. Watching the latter then slowly seep into the jobs and lives of the lawyers who have worked hard at denying it for most of their careers is like watching the colour rush into the town of Pleasantville, an exhale of relief in a way, no longer denying your primal reaction to something so overwhelming. We see it as Amy Ryan’s character calls the boyfriend of a man who died that day, whom the law refuses to recognise as his partner, and when Keaton’s Feinberg is blindsided by a sudden visit by a grieving wife (Laura Benanti), moments that would be traditionally be seen as weakness instead emerging as great strength.
The relative speed at which Hollywood chooses to respond to a major real world event, a desire to be first no matter the cost, has historically led to projects that don’t often tell a difficult story in the most effective way or at the right time. Even at five years out, the one-two punch of United 93 and World Trade Center was deemed too soon by many, neither film worthy of such a rush anyway. Twenty years after the towers fell, with ample time to reflect and re-examine, Worth brings thoughtfulness and grace to a subgenre that’s struggled to find either. The bar might be low but Worth has raised it high.
•This article was amended on 30 September 2021 to remove a reference to a branded product.
Worth is available on Netflix now