The legacy onto which 9/11 left on the United States over the past now twenty years is something inescapable and quite obvious, but it’s also an event that’s left quite a paltry cinematic legacy. At the time, there were, of course, movies that consciously evoked the sense of national tragedy unfolding live on the news; the horror and chaos of Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds being the most successful example. Less artful were the many superhero blockbusters and Transformers sequels that, from about the mid-’00s, all seemed to end in dusty, rubble-strewn downtowns and what critics termed “9/11 imagery.” There were movies that tried to reflect the New York spirit of the aftermath: the disillusionment in Spike Lee’s 25th Hour, the optimism in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man. But as for the event itself and the grief of the victims’ families, depictions have been rocky, shown in unflinching intensity in Paul Greengrass’ United 93 and exemplified at its worst through the ending of Remember Me and the reveals in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
This should have probably come as no surprise; seeing how our country continually struggles with an inability to deal and/or learn from traumas. It’s become a common myth that the magnitude of 9/11 was simply too much to be addressed in a meaningful way. The bigger truth being that, under the guidance of the Bush administration, 9/11 mostly brought out the worst in America, rather than the best: war, larger secrecy, alarmism, xenophobia, military-industrial machinations, terrible country songs, and a new peak level of conformism and media gullibility last seen during the Eisenhower years. In this respect, Sara Colangelo’s Worth, in which 9/11 is depicted only briefly as a cacophony of ringing cellphones on a commuter train, feels initially refreshing. The script, by Max Borenstein, has found an intriguingly subtle angle on the post-9/11 conflict between mass grief and putative democratic values: the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. Established a mere ten days after 9/11 by an act of congress, this was in many ways a cynical creation, intended less to offer immediate assistance to survivors and victims’ families than to protect the country’s soon-to-be-embattled airlines from lawsuits; to receive the compensation, a potential beneficiary had to agree not to sue.
Michael Keaton stars as Ken Feinberg, an attorney, law professor, and expert in legal mediation who is picked by Attorney General John Ashcroft to administer the fund despite being a Democrat and former chief of staff to Ted Kennedy. It seems he is chosen, in large part, because he’s the only person in America who actually wants the job. Naturally, there are a few conditions. For one thing, the money can only be paid out if eighty-percent of the potential beneficiaries agree to the government’s deal before the end of 2003. As for the sum, it will be calculated using a formula based on the victim’s potential lifetime earnings, meaning that the family of a hedge-fund manager will be paid much more than that of a janitor. Thus, Ken and his partner, Camille Biros (Amy Ryan), have their work cut out for them: All they have to do is convince a large group of grieving families (many of whom are aware of the fact that they’re being paid off) to agree to these terms.
However coldly bureaucratic, Feinberg genuinely believes this to be a better option when compared to a lengthy lawsuit. The question of a life’s worth is inevitably brought up — hence the title. But Worth ultimately sidesteps it; the scattered plot is about the fine print. In the absence of a will, the beneficiaries are supposed to be determined by the laws of the state where the victim resided, a solution that seems American and in the vein of common sense but immediately raises problems. One victim is a gay Pentagon employee whose partner will be excluded from the fund payments under Virginia law; the compensation will instead be going to the victim’s estranged, homophobic family. Another turns out to have led something of a double life, with a mistress and two illegitimate children; under the law, all of his kids will qualify as beneficiaries, but the decision whether or not to accept compensation rests solely with his wife.
These kinds of tough dilemmas and thought experiments animate the best aspects of Worth, as do Feinberg’s occasional interactions with Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci), a man very much like himself who becomes the leader of a group opposed to the terms of the fund. Genuinely interesting questions are raised about what qualifies as fair and democratic: a set of rules that applies to everyone equally, or a series of solutions and exceptions? The fund may be the fairest option for the victims’ families as a group, but can it be fair to them as individuals? The film as a whole, though, struggles to make a point under Colangelo’s impassive direction, losing itself in thinly drawn plotting while trying to give itself a rather unconvincing feel-good arc to Feinberg, a character who’s dilemma is much more compelling than the man himself and someone isn’t exactly sympathetic. The end result feels unearned and just plain too easy, especially for a film that was fraught with thorny questions and problems to tackle. As formidable and dramatically compelling as its central moral dilemma can be, Worth is let down by its thinly grazed subplots and general, misguided choice to warp itself into cliché.
Worth is available to stream on Netflix