As a child, when future TV host Fred Rogers would see scary images on the news, his mother would tell him, “Look for the heroes.” If Fred were a boy today, she’d add, “Look for Ken Feinberg.” Feinberg, the lawyer at the center of Sara Colangelo’s “Worth,” specializes in putting a price tag on human tragedy. He’s brought his calculator to the shootings in Sandy Hook, Aurora, Virginia Tech and Orlando, and tallied spreadsheets for victims of the Boston Bombing, the BP oil spill, Agent Orange, asbestos, bad breast implants, bad car ignitions, Boeing 737s, the Catholic Church and Penn State. Feinberg even haggled the value of the Zapruder Tape.
Here, Colangelo (“The Kindergarten Teacher”) and screenwriter Max Borenstein are only interested in Feinberg’s most famous case: the payout for the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. The two-year grind involved more than 7,000 families and turned the disaster accountant, played with lean energy by Michael Keaton, into a boldface name. He even wrote a book, “What is Life Worth?,” a question Keaton scrawls on the chalkboard of his Georgetown classroom at the start of the film, and that the real Feinstein attempted to publicly solve by posting tables on his website, along with articles like “Explanation of Process for Computing Presumed Economic Loss.” Yet, “Worth” avoids the answer. Though Feinberg is a singular figure in modern American history (few else could, or would, do his job), “Worth” hammers his story into a standard biopic template — Grinch Finds Heart — as though one man discovering empathy is truly priceless.
Colangelo and DP Pepe Avila del Pino focus on the small, ordinary details of the morning of 9/11, the pigeons on the sidewalk, the pretzel vendors setting up shop, the husbands and wives hastily saying goodbye before rushing off to work. The film has a gray-washed starkness to match the strict windows of New York City skyscrapers and Nico Muhly’s dignified score. Feinberg happens to be on a train, and he’s so caught up listening to classical music that he’s the last passenger to spot the smoke.
Feinberg pushes Attorney General John Ashcroft (Victor Slezak) for the job, which President Bush (an uncredited voice over the phone) says he “wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.” He thinks he can do something good, but the fund itself has an innate flaw. It’s not designed for the victims; it’s designed to prevent the victims from suing the airline companies, which, if bankrupted, could destroy the entire economy and disrupt all stateside travel, at least according to the fearmongering airline lobbyists who push for the bill.
Worse, the bill specifies the families’ compensation should be tied to the deceased’s salary and lost future income, meaning that a dead dishwasher is worth $200,000, while a dead CFO is worth more than $14 million. Borenstein’s script cuts between two wrenching negotiations: The wealthy victims’ lawyers harangue Feinberg that he also needs to add in their projected bonuses, while a roomful of immigrant mourners are grateful that Feinberg’s second-in-command, Camille Biros (Amy Ryan), is offering them comparative pennies.
If this all seems irrational and immoral, the film’s conscience appears in the form of Stanley Tucci as Charles, a 9/11 widower and activist who launches the webpage FixTheFund.org. Tucci and Keaton go head-to-head in several scenes in which Colangelo mines enchantment from the sight of two calm, gray-haired, glasses-wearing men tactfully debating life and death without raising their voices. If you want the volume cranked up, there’s a gratifying showdown where Feinberg is heckled by FDNY workers who yell that all human lives should be valued equally.
Feinberg has never come around to that position himself, but instead of arguing those ethics, or even watching him grimly but firmly run his actuary tables, “Worth” fudges the stakes by focusing on the question of whether he can get 80% of the families signed to the deal before the December 2003 deadline. The countdown clock distracts from the supposedly serious moral drama. The stakes are too high, and too real, for a script structured like a comedy about an emergency bikini car wash to save the sorority house.
In “Worth’s” strongest moments, the grieving mothers, fathers, spouses, partners and children force Feinstein and his legal team (which also includes Shunori Ramanathan and Ato Blankson-Wood) to see them as humans, not numbers. There’s a series of painful scenes where people push their memories onto the lawyers, asking them to listen to stories, letters, even voicemails, making the lawyers recoil for their own sanity. There’s only so much misery they can hear, especially Ryan, who lets Camille wear the victims’ sadness like a heavy suit. “That’s the job,” Feinberg insists. And he keeps repeating that mantra until “Worth’s” fictional Feinberg — if not the real one — finds it leaves an ashy taste in his mouth.