Sundance 2020: Worth

Michael Keaton and Stanley Tucci appear in Worth by Sara Colangelo, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Worth examines the cost of human lives in the true story of the efforts that went into launching the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.

How much is life worth?  Is a Fortune 500 CEO worth the same or more than a dishwasher?  How do you breakdown the money when parents disapprove of their children’s lifestyle?  This is really what it all comes down to with compensating victims and their families.

When we first meet Kenneth Feinberg (Michael Keaton), he’s teaching a class about what is life worth.  This knowledge will come to be necessary when he becomes tasked as Special Master of the 9/11 Fund.  It’s not an easy task but somebody must do the job.  Where most lawyers would take their fee, The Feinberg Group does the work pro bono.  It wouldn’t be the last time as he’s helped out on funds for other disasters in America.

Feinberg has help at his law firm in handling the task.  Executive head of operations Camille Biros (Amy Ryan) and other staff tasked to the fund go out in the neighborhoods to listen to victims and their families.  While they’re out in the field, Charles Wolff (Stanley Tucci) believes the fund has issues and needs fixing.  He isn’t wrong but it’s a matter of people listening.  He comes around at the right time when it doesn’t look like Feinberg can get the required 80% on board before lawsuits come into play from lawyers such as Lee Quinn (Tate Donovan).  All Wolff needs to do is write a blog post and people will listen.

It’s been a few years since Michael Keaton delivered an Oscar-worthy performance but he’s on top of his game here.  If it’s not the New York accent, it’s the small things.  There’s something in watching him disappear into the role of American hero Kenneth Feinberg.  Unlike Keaton’s performance in Birdman, this person is completely real.  Sure, Max Borenstein’s script takes some dramatic liberties but what biopic doesn’t do such a thing?  In some instances, they may be a composite.

On the script front, Worth thankfully focuses in on a few victims and their families.  One is a grieving gay man whose partner died on 9/11.  The first person called on the dreadful morning wasn’t the parents but the partner.  Virginia didn’t allow for any partners to financially benefit when it came to insurance, etc.  And his parents?  Outright homophobic.  There’s a focus on Charles Wolff, whose wife worked in the World Trade Center, and a NYPD firefighter whose brother died in the tower that morning.  They all have a story to tell.

Behind the camera, Sara Colangelo directs a masterpiece full of amazing performances from the actors.  Colangelo gave us the English-language remake of The Kindergarten Teacher two years ago at Sundance.  It’s no surprise that her third feature film premiered on the mountain.

We all know where we were when tragedy struck in 2001.  I was sitting in second period at high school.  Feinberg, according to the film, was on a train and completely oblivious to his surroundings.  It doesn’t take long before he’s staring outside and looking at the smoke from the Pentagon.  But, like this movie shows, Americans came together and resumed the new normal, whatever that was at the time.  Many families wouldn’t be able to truly resume their lives because of the losses they endured at the time.  Other families would see loved ones deciding to enlist in the military.

Worth might examine how much a life is worth but at the end of the day, the film also shows how Kenneth Feinberg grew as a person.

DIRECTOR:  Sara Colangelo
SCREENWRITER:  Max Borenstein
CAST:  Michael Keaton, Stanley Tucci, Amy Ryan, Tate Donovan, Shunori Ramanathan, Talia Balsam, Laura Benati, Marc Maron, Ato Blankson-Wood, Chris Tardio

Worth held its world premiere during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in the Premieres program. Grade: 5/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.