Michael Keaton and Stanley Tucci shine in this legal story about compensating the victims of 9/11 that's really about the contest between our best rational and emotional impulses.
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A movie that's basically a two-hour exploration of actuarial tables and intricate legal compensation rules may not sound very compelling. But "Worth," the new Netflix feature starring Michael Keaton as the man in charge of determining compensation for the victims of 9/11, is just that.
In this based-on-true tale, Keaton plays Ken Feinberg, a bigwig attorney focusing on a very specialized area: victim compensation funds. This is where an entity sets up a pile of money to give to victims and their families after a catastrophic event in exchange for not suing. It's a form of mediation, with the carrot of getting a hassle-free check right away and the stick that you might spend years, even decades, litigating in court and lose anyway.
Cantankerous and old-school, Feinberg's mantra is there is no such thing as fair or making people happy; he's trying to make them just happy enough to walk away.
When the Sept. 11 attacks happen and it becomes clear that mass lawsuits against the airlines and others could wreak havoc on the entire economy, Congress passes a compensation fund and gives broad latitude to the attorney, called a special master, in charge of coming up with a formula to distribute the dough. Feinberg enthusiastically volunteers and fights for the job, even though he's literally the only guy in the country who wants the gig.
"I wouldn't wish this job on my worst enemy," says President George W. Bush when he calls to "congratulate" Feinberg.
But Feinberg's done this before with big cases, and takes it on because he truly thinks he's the best person suited -- and he wants to serve his country in a time of need.
But as time goes on and he tries to stick to dollars-and-sense while everyone else wants an emotional catharsis, Feinberg begins to see the error of his ways. He learns to stop treating people as statistics and stop focusing on potential career earnings of the deceased, and instead start seeing them as individuals with unique stories.
Amy Ryan plays Camile Biros, Feinberg's right-hand woman and partner. She's as steady as he but sees earlier that the path they're going down isn't the right one. Shunori Ramanthan plays a junior attorney worn down by listening to the family's heartrending stories. Tate Donovan plays Lee Quinn, the head of the fat cat lawyers who think the formula should be skewed toward the executives who lost their lives over the common folk.
In one scene Feinberg, who's an opera buff who does his best thinking with headphones on, is listening to an aria while he noodles out some figures and realizes his own formula will result in a janitor's family getting $350,000 while some corner-office guy gets $14 million.
The biggest force to sway his mind is Charles Wolf, played by Stanley Tucci, a journalist and self-appointed troublemaker whose wife died in the 9/11 attacks. He quickly sets up a website called "Fix the Fund," urging that a one-size-fits-all formula can't possibly account for the variations and intricacies of each individual human life.
Wolf quickly gains a following, and Feinberg is hard-pressed to reach a mandated goal of 80% of victim families participating, or the whole thing falls apart.
Directed by Sara Colangelo from a script by Max Borenstein, "Worth" moves us with a story that's about the contest between the rational and emotional. Feinberg, who wrote a book called "What Is Life Worth?" about his experiences, is our stand-in as a basically decent guy who's spent so much time in courtrooms and sitting at negotiating tables that he's lost the human touch.
This is not just a story about a bunch of grieving families getting help, but also one attorney's redemption journey.
Keaton is terrific and spot-on as usual, playing a man who thinks he knows it all and finds out how little he really does, while Tucci is solid in a less showy role as the guy who lives to point out other people's mistakes... politely.
Some of the individual cases pluck hard at our heartstrings. There's the gay man shut out by his deceased partner's fundamentalist family in a time before same-sex marriage was commonplace. And the devoted firefighter's wife being pushed by her brother-in-law to sue, while Feinberg is badgered by another attorney with a darker portrait of the dead guy's life
"Worth" may be another drama in which the attorney is the hero, which I know isn't a popular notion these days. But sometimes we need wonky, left-brain types like Ken Feinberg to steer us through complicated terrain -- and the Charles Wolfs to whisper in their ear, nudging them toward their better angels.