PARK CITY – Over the past year, you might have noticed that Jon Stewart, once the host of “The Daily Show,” reappeared from his semi-public retirement to testify at congressional hearings in Washington, D.C. Stewart was using his celebrity to lead the fight for an extension of the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund, a government program approved by Congress after the attacks mostly to deter victims from suing the nation’s airlines. This recent fight saw the program finally earn additional decades of funding so it can still assist individuals who were injured in the attacks or have suffered health issues after assisting in the removal of toxic debris. What has been slightly lost to history is the first iteration of that program was met with significant pushback when it was announced and that’s the story director Sara Colangelo (“The Kindergarten Teacher”) and screenwriter Max Borenstein (AMC’s “The Terror: Infamy”) want to tell in “Worth,” a new drama that premiered Friday at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
The film begins by introducing us to a law school lecture run by Ken Feinberg (Michael Keaton). He prompts the class to consider the difficulty in determining compensation for the victim of an untimely passing. His lesson is that once you treat it just as numbers it’s not that difficult. In essence, keep the emotion out of it. Outside of the classroom (in fact, he never returns there in the film), Feinberg is a lawyer nationally renowned for running a victim’s compensation practice with his partner, Camille Bros (Amy Ryan). The rest of his life is almost detached from the world as he obsesses over plans for his perfect retirement home and relaxes by shutting out the world and listening to a massive collection of Opera recordings. Then, the events of Sept. 11 occur. In a wonderfully directed sequence, Feinberg finds himself initially oblivious to passengers in his rail car panicking after receiving phone calls and the sight of the Pentagon smoking in the distance. The unthinkable has occurred.
Horrified like most of the world, Feinberg soon finds himself pitching the Attorney General his services as a pro bono special master of the Victim Compensation Fund. A job no one else truly wanted and Feinberg soon discovers why. While both he and Bros had worked on long class action settlement cases such as those focused on the victims of Agent Orange or Abestos, few of their cases involved so many people from different socioeconomic backgrounds suffering from a recent tragedy such as Sept. 11. The families of the wealthier victims (CEOs, executives, etc.), for example, balk at Feinberg’s restitution calculations and prepare to sue under the guise of their own attorney, Lee Quinn (Tate Donovan). When Feinberg attempts to explain the compensation formula at a public hearing, the victims on hand have little patience for what sounds like cold-hearted answers. There is one person asking for civility, however, Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci), who lost his wife in the collapse of one of the twin towers.
Feinberg and his law firm learn that Wolf has major problems with the fund and the former elected official and community organizer soon creates a Fix The Fund website for victims. Soon thousands of potential recipients of the fund are following his every post arguing against agreeing to the government’s terms. Making matters even more complicated is the fact Feinberg and his law firm are under the gun to have at least 80% of the victims agree to the fund or it will get sent back to Congress for further review which could scuttle any compensation for years. The clock is ticking and it’s ticking quickly.
Intertwined in this narrative are the stories of the actual victims. It’s unclear if the filmmakers are using the stories of the fund participants themselves or taking artistic liberty, but as the firm begins interviewing the applicants more and more stories from that tragic day are told. What is so unnerving about “Worth” is that most of these recollections should be prime tearjerker material. Emotions should be at a fever pitch throughout the film and the stories should be genuinely pushing buttons. And when Colangelo uses archival footage of the towers collapsing and the destruction on-site it does pull at the heartstrings. Perhaps it’s the performances of these lesser-known actors portraying these victims, but despite Keaton and Ryan’s best efforts it often feels detached. There is one moment when Ryan’s character is listening to a telephone message left for his lover from someone who was killed working at the Pentagon and it feels like it’s being heard from miles away. Perhaps this detachment is also because there are simply too many stories.
At almost two-hours “Worth” somehow feels almost twice as long. Granted, we understand it’s a cliché to describe a film in such terms, but Colangelo and Borenstein are trying to cover too much ground that is, for lack of a better word, repetitive. That’s no disrespect to the real victims of the attacks or those that fought Feinberg over how the fund was administered. It’s a fault of the filmmaking and nothing more. Then again Colangelo is lucky to have Keaton and Tucci to steal the viewer’s attention.
When “Worthy” is riveting it’s only when Tucci and Keaton are on screen together. There is a spark in their performances that’s missing from the rest of the picture and Tucci is somehow the only actor in the ensemble who can make you truly feel a victim’s pain. The duo are so electric together you wish the real-life events the film is based on found the pair interacting even more. Of course, history doesn’t always give us what we want, but when it comes to these two legends we’ll take what we can get. [C+]