Tuesday September 14, 2021
Movie Review: Worth (2021)
“Worth” is a near-worthy movie that gets the law right but not its main character, attorney Kenneth Feinberg (Michael Keaton). It makes him the last man in the room to realize what needs to be done—everyone else is miles ahead of him, including us. Basically they withhold his humanity so he can recover it at the 11th hour, when his humanity was what drove him to seek the thankless task at the start.
At least that’s what I thought after seeing the film. Turns out there’s some truth in it.
This is from William Grimes review of Feinberg’s 2005 book, “What Is Life Worth? The Unprecedented Effort to Compensate the Victims of 9/11”:
Mr. Feinberg confesses that he was unprepared for the emotional experience of counseling angry or grieving relatives. Often he was thrust into bitter family squabbles. In the early days of administering the fund, he addressed audiences in a lawyerly, just-the-facts style that struck many listeners, he writes, as “brusque and callous.” With time, he relied more on his powers of sympathy. Mostly, he listened, and he has included moving accounts of the stories he heard.
I was also disappointed that the purpose of the film was the bête noire of “The Wire”: the numbers game. We’re told Feinberg and his team need to reach 80% acceptance for the fund to be effective, and he’s far behind that figure 18 months into the project, closing in on the Dec. 2003 deadline. But wait! At the last minute they get a surge of acceptances! Yay!
Didn’t buy it. But again, turns out there’s truth in it:
Thanks to a last-minute flood of applications, the 9/11 fund, which seemed to be teetering on the edge of failure, attracted 97 percent of those eligible for compensation.
So in the wake of these facts, have I revised my opinion of the film? Nah.
Helping Bush get re-elected
I know a little something about Feinberg, a class action and plaintiff’s attorney in Washington, D.C., because in my day job we’ve written about him a few times. The biggest piece, a cover feature in 2008, was called—after Feinberg’s book title—“What Is Life Worth?” which was also the original title of this movie. It’s a better title.
Feinberg was a longtime attorney and mediator who became nationally known when he was appointed the head of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, which was created by Congress in the wake of the 9/11 attacks at the behest of the airline industry. The idea: Instead of wasting years in litigation, while possibly sinking the economy in the process, the federal government can settle with the victims. Airlines aren’t sued, victims and their families get their money now (as opposed to in 10-15 years maybe), and the economy stays strong.
Again, most of this is true, but I don’t quite get the “sinking the economy” argument. From 7,000 lawsuits? Even if it were true, my perspective now is that it would’ve sunk the economy on W.’s watch, which meant he would’ve been less likely to be re-elected in 2004. The movie has Feinberg, a Democrat and one-time aide to Sen. Ted Kennedy, busting his ass to save the presidency of a dipshit, extra-legal Republican.
But the main issue I have with the film is how long it took Feinberg to come around to the idea that sympathy and listening would alleviate a lot of the problems. In the movie, he seems to get it, once, twice, three times, but keeps acting in the same bookish manner. Meanwhile, his mostly female colleagues, Camille Biros and Priya Kundi (Amy Ryan and Shunori Ramanathan), know the right path, as does grassroots organizer Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci), who objects to the formula Feinberg has created to assess the value of each person. Overall, for most of the movie, our hero is insensitive. How is that good? And that formula of his never really gets its day in court—i.e., with us. Did it make sense? Did it make sense given that the fund had to be administered with different rates for different victims?
There are literally thousands of victims’ stories to tell here and the movie does a good job of making us care about a few of them with just 10-15 seconds of air time. The main victim subplots involve the Donato family, wife Karen and brother Frank (Laura Benanti and Chris Tardio), and the husband/brother/firefighter they lost, and how, oops, he actually had a second family, with two kids, who deserve some of the money, too. Then there’s the gay partner of one of the victims, who is not only not acknowledged by the victim’s parents but dismissed as a parasite. Since this is 2002-03, he has no rights in the matter. The movie stays true to that outcome, though it probably makes Biros, an attorney, care a little too much.
This story, from our 2008 feature, might’ve been worth dramatizing:
One young widow was due $1 million. “I want more,” she told him. “And I want it within 30 days.” She explained that she had cancer and her husband had been preparing to take care of their two small children when she died. Feinberg gave her more money, and within 30 days. Seven weeks later, she died.
Maybe the movie should’ve made empathy less the solution than a path to another problem. How can you listen to so much tragedy and not get swept under it?
Keaton is great. Not Jewish but great. Tucci is both Jewish (for a Jewish role) and great. Amy Ryan always seems real, never a false note. The movie was directed by Sara Colangelo (“The Kindergarten Teacher”), and written by Max Borenstein (the Godzilla/Kong movies), and is worthier than any Godzilla/Kong movie. We watched it the night before the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
The most startling moment may be at the end, when the movie informs us of the compensation funds Feinstein and Biros have administered since 9/11:
You look at that list of national tragedies, one after the other, and think, “What the fuck is wrong with us?” Maybe that should be the title of the next movie.