It’s been twenty years since the horrific events of September 11th, 2001, a day where the United States was shaken to its absolute core. Everyone knows exactly where they were when they heard the news about the attacks on the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the United 93 crash in Pennsylvania. For many, it is the defining historical moment of our lifetime. Moreover, it was the day that many men and woman lost their lives, either in the attacks or trying to save those affected by these acts of violence. We lost thousands of Americans on 9/11 and left too many families with empty seats at their dinner tables later that fall for the holidays. The pain those people are still going through can break anyone’s heart because, on the most fundamental human level, we all know what it is like to lose someone, just not to the extent of this event. But if you can relate to them person to person, then you can find sympathy for just about anyone in this world. That’s why Sara Colangelo’s Worth is a special, cathartic look at the trauma and toll left behind by these attacks and what we can do to helps those in pain recover from this type of loss.
On the train, heading to his law firm, Kenneth Feinberg (Michael Keaton) sees the smoke from the attack at the Pentagon. He’s speechless, unable to work, and goes home to his wife Diane (Talia Balsam), where we see the same expression on his face as we have seen when he first saw what had happened. After a couple of days, Ken is asked by John Ashcroft (Victor Slezak), the former attorney general for the George W. Bush administration, to help put together a plan that would form into a bill in Congress to pay for the lives lost due to the events of 9/11. The government, and the airlines, wanted this plan to work so then they could avoid massive civil lawsuits that they feared would’ve tanked the United States economy. Ken, known for being a lawyer gets massive settlement deals done between two contentious parties, accepts the challenge, and sets up a system in which he and his team, led by Camille Biros (Amy Ryan), can calculate how much each family member will be paid for their deceased loved ones. Basically, putting a dollar amount on dead human beings after a national tragedy.
But as Ken and his associates start to present the idea of this funded plan to the victim’s families, they realize this isn’t going to be as simple as Ken’s previous deals. For one, this is event was unlike anything this country ever experienced before, and second, is because it is insulting to suggest that a stranger working on behalf of the United States government could tell these somber, angry people how much value their loved one was. Plus, after conversations with Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci), a man who has started a website and group to fight against this plan, Ken knows the uphill battle he faces. Yet, as the film plays out, it takes him a long time to realize just what his work on this assignment will mean to these families. Ken mostly took the job out of sense of obligation to his country, to help these people heal in the best possible way he knows how. And by the end, he gets there, even if it took a lot of soul searching and listening on his part.
As we see Ken struggle to connect with the benefactors of his plan, we see his staff log testimonials on the various people lost in the towers, on the planes, or even the first responders trying to help those put in harm’s way. While mostly played by actors, these stories are devastating to hear given how simple the direction and writing of these scenes are presented. It’s just single camera, off to the side shots, as if Colangelo and screenwriter Max Borenstein, wanted you to sit in the seat of Ken’s co-workers, and take in the emotional testimony being told in these conversations. By doing this, one’s mind is taken back two decades to all the sorrow felt at the time of the attacks. And while most of the story does center around Feinberg and his quest to get the funds approved by everyone, the real takeaway from Worth is all the stories told about the people lost on that awful day.
Keaton fits perfectly into the role of Feinberg. Maybe it’s because we’ve seen him pull off a similar role like this in Spotlight, where he is on a mission for the collective good to write a wrong. Or we just trust him as an audience member because he sells the conflict we see in this man so well. It’s hard to make everybody happy, and in most cases, Ken would have to compromise on a deal like this, but given the circumstances and that this is a once in a lifetime event, his recognition of the importance of this issue is pivotal to the films success and Keaton nails it. Ryan and Tucci deliver their usual terrific supporting performances, with each having a few somber, tear jerking scenes to showcase the pain this situation is bringing to both sides of the fight. But again, the real shining stars in Worth are the unknown supporting actors who are telling the stories of their dearly departed family or friends. They are what makes this film special.
Progress has been made over the last twenty years since those dark September days. The U.S. government, under two different Presidential administrations, fought and found those responsible for the attacks. We rebuilt the Pentagon and memorialized ground zero of the Twin Towers as a symbol to never forget what happened. Yet, even as recent as a few years ago, Congress almost pulled the plug on the renewal of the very funds fought for in this very film. It took Jon Stewart to raise hell in order for our politicians to do the right thing and pass more funds for the victim’s fund. But whether it is a comedian, a lawyer, or anyone in between, we need someone to always fight for those who need help and can’t do it on their own.
Worth demonstrates that as long as those good people exist, those who lost their everything can at least have something. It won’t bring them back, but the comfort will help them and all of us move on peacefully.
Netflix will release Worth in select theaters and streaming on September 3.
Photo: Monika Lek / Netflix