Sundance 2020: Worth, by David Bax
Oddly, the most baldly manipulative parts of Sara Colangelo’s Worth are among the parts that work the best. From the Zero Dark Thirty-style opening of audio over a black screen to the many, brief scenes in which actors like Gayle Rankin or Laura Benanti play family members of those who died on September 11, 2001 giving testimony about their departed loved ones’ last moments. These scenes tug at every heartstring they’re designed to but, unlike most of the rest of Worth, which manipulates in more conventional ways, at least they feel honest.
Michael Keaton stars as Ken Feinberg, the lawyer who oversaw the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. Worth tracks his progress from the day of the attacks to the deadline at which family members had to decide whether or not to sign on to receive compensation. Doing so meant signing away the right to sue the airlines. Along with his business partner (Amy Ryan) and a team of lawyers, they contend with opposition from the cutthroat legal representation for a World Trade Center stockbroker firm (Tate Donovan) to a widower organizing the families for a better deal (Stanley Tucci) to plenty of others.
Casting Keaton is, as usual, a smart move. His background as a comedian not only provides much needed levity and humanizing character wrinkles. It also means he’s free enough from vanity to make clear that Feinberg is a deeply flawed protagonist at best. His early instances of callously putting his foot in his mouth in front of victims’ family members ring true.
Worth‘s thematic crux is (or ought to be) dredged up by Feinberg’s insistence, “I need to stay impartial for this to work.” Questioning that axiom is crucial in a world in which seemingly well-meaning people have longed insisted that change take a number in line behind civility. From the Civil Rights Act to the Trump administration’s concentration camps today, those who advocate for by-the-book decorum while people suffer as enemies of good just as much as anyone else.
Frustratingly, Feinberg’s inevitable change of heart (in a contrived come-to-Jesus moment) fails to make an impact for the very fact of its inevitability. Unlike better real life procedurals like Spotlight or even last year’s The Report, where each new development was the consequence of the one that came before, Worth feels very much like the tail is wagging the dog. It’s all a foregone conclusion, robbing the film of its drama and making the whole affair look like dramatizations in a bad television documentary.