Worth (M, 118 minutes)
As a plane flies past in the early scenes of this 9/11 drama, it's barely necessary to show the moment of impact. We know where it is heading and it makes the opening montage all the more chilling.
In New York in 2001, two passenger planes plus tall buildings equal September 11. Meaning is inferred with images juxtaposed. It's all we need. Only since 2001 has such an event seemed possible.
Worth is about what happened afterwards, when the ghostly white dust covering survivors and bystanders on the streets of Lower Manhattan was washed away and feelings were intensely raw.
As a recognised expert in the field of mediation and dispute resolution, Attorney Kenneth Feinberg (the consistently versatile Michael Keaton) received a call requesting he take charge of disaster victim compensation. He agreed, and would do it pro bono.
In thanking Feinberg for agreeing to take on the role, US president George W. Bush said the role of Special Master September 11th Victim Compensation Fund was a job he wouldn't wish on his worst enemy. When Feinberg took it on, little did he know.
Based on true events, this is a low-key drama about high-stakes issues. It is intelligently written by Max Borenstein, and sensitively directed by Sarah Colangelo (The Kindergarten Teacher) who knows when to draw back, delivering the drama in a desaturated palette, with imaginative use of interior spaces. While the inevitable harrowing victim interviews are conducted face-to-face, they alternate with conversations overheard at a distance.
Borenstein's screenplay is based on the book What Is Life Worth? by Feinberg. It's intriguing to read that this screenwriter hasn't confined himself to contemporary historical drama. There are Godzilla screenplays to his name.
Feinberg, who still has his own New York-based legal company, also presented classes to law students on his area of expertise and the issues it raised. "What is life worth?" he would write in chalk on a blackboard. It's the first hint that he was something of a Luddite, allergic to the digital world.
At the time of 9/11, Feinberg and his wife Diane (an empathetic Talia Balsam) were having a family holiday home built. Scenes at the coast only underline their privilege, and signify how far Feinberg and his legal coterie were at a remove from the realities of the Bronx and Brooklyn. He will need lessons in building client relationships with the average New Yorker.
During a preliminary meeting with the US attorney general, Feinberg was backgrounded on the government rationale. The potential for lawsuits from 7000 relatives suing airlines, suing companies, the city fire department, Twin Towers management and more, for compensation, could crash the economy.
It would be Feinberg's task to avoid this possibility, encouraging clients affected by the disaster to settle on a negotiated amount drawn from a generous government compensation fund.
The answer to his question "What is life worth?" is almost shocking
The Manhattan attorney had to find a way to compensate victims grappling with incalculable loss. Identified as a Democrat supporter and a former chief-of-staff for Teddy Kennedy, Feinberg was a decent man although his approach to compensation initially seemed inflexible and clinical.
It's probably why he was deemed the man for the job. The answer to his question "What is life worth?" is almost shocking. It's not philosophy, he tells his law class, it's a number that needs to be worked out. It may not be fair, but when done it's time to move on.
At the first meeting with the relatives of victims, Feinberg confronts a room full of very angry and aggrieved people. The meeting simply erupts, extinguishing any hopes he had for agreement in principle to his proposal. Although he could be blamed for lack of consultation, poor choice of words and perceived insensitivity, it would be a Herculean task to manage so many clients dealing with loss in so many different dimensions.
Stanley Tucci makes a strong impression as Charles Wolf, a 9/11 widower, who finds everything that Feinberg says offensive. It prompts Feinberg and his team to eventually connect with each of the victims and to make sense of their loss within an adjustable framework. Life is complicated, even messy sometimes, and people don't fit the rules.
Worth is thoughtful, sensitive drama handled with integrity. It's a devastating story that doesn't overwhelm, and Keaton and Tucci in the key roles are terrific.