The biopic is a notoriously difficult genre to master, even though the narrative presents itself in its entirety years before a single word of the script has been penned. Oftentimes, they can lean into becoming a hagiography of their subjects, stripping away any sense of conflict in favor of hero worship, while those based in and around seismic real-world events can wind up bogged down in dry exposition sequence of old dudes in starchy suits sitting around a table talking to each other.
While there’s admittedly plenty of the latter in Worth, directed by Sara Colangelo from a screenplay by MonsterVerse veteran Max Borenstein, the upcoming Netflix release is elevated above mediocrity by approaching things from a decidedly human angle, as well as yet another fantastic turn from the resurgent Michael Keaton as Kenneth Feinberg.
It’s been almost 20 years since 9/11, and yet it still looms large over every major political, societal and cultural event that unfolds in the United States, something that may never change. We’ve seen plenty of adaptations and dramatizations surrounding the attacks themselves, but Worth focuses on an aftermath that a lot of people outside America may not have ever considered before, or even been aware of.
In what was a cynical move on the surface to prevent the airline and other industries being sued to the brink of oblivion, the government set up the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. More than 7000 families were involved in the proceedings, and it presented Feinberg with perhaps the most difficult question of them all. Facing a seemingly insurmountable task, the attorney and his team were forced to look at each person who lost their lives that day, and work out suitable financial compensation for their families based on economic circumstance.
It’s an intriguing, fascinating and also queasy moral quandary, but Feinberg pitched himself as the ideal man for the job, so he knew what he was getting himself in for. Worth doesn’t feature the typical grandstanding you’d expect from a Hollywood production tackling such weighty and generation-defining subject matter, but that’s entirely for the betterment of the final product.
Feinberg’s arc is in essence ‘outwardly cold man thaws as he discovers the value of empathy’, but Keaton’s performance almost note-perfect. Here’s a guy that was very good at his job, and used that to his advantage to crunch the numbers and determine who was entitled to what, only to discover that talking to the people face-to-face would be the most difficult task of a distinguished career. The themes are as timely now as they ever were, especially with the pandemic causing wide-ranging unemployment and yielding a huge death toll, so it’s worked in Worth‘s favor that it arrives towards what’s hopefully the tail end of the COVID-19 crisis.
The discrepancies and skewed definition of entitlement is hammered home when we see an immigrant family rejoicing over a couple of hundred thousand dollars, but the Wall Street crowd think millions is a pittance by comparison. There aren’t any heroes or villains in Worth, at least not in the standard sense of the word, but it’s a glimpse at how a government painted the decision to preserve the economy as a good deed designed to benefit the nation as a whole, only for some people to play hardball regardless.
It isn’t just Keaton’s movie, with the ensemble cast phenomenal across the board. Amy Ryan is fantastic as the emotionally conflicted Camille Biros, who doesn’t project the same fortitude as Feinberg, something that becomes gradually clearer as we see the cracks begin to form every time she appears in a different scene throughout the film. Stanley Tucci is as reliable as ever in what could be called the most ‘showy’ role in Worth, and he even gets the big back-and-forth scene opposite Keaton for good measure, but it’s all grounded in the emotion and context of the discussion they’re having.
The desire to have 80% of the families signed up by December 2003 in order to beat the deadline adds a ticking time-bomb element to the story, but it doesn’t really feel necessary to Worth as a whole when the situation is real, the stakes are high, and everyone’s fully aware of how things turn out in the end. The smaller moments are where things really fly, because at the end of the day the movie is a political procedural, and without that sense of intimacy we’re just being regaled with a series of events and bullet points that were headline news on a daily basis over a decade ago.
Worth isn’t concerned with whether or not the government were right or wrong to put a compensation fund in practice solely to cover their own asses, but rather the trickle-down consequences that effected everyone from CEOs to dishwashers, and corporations to bodegas. Feinberg is a flawed protagonist, so this is far from a one-note hero’s journey, but Keaton’s work is so strong that you find yourself hanging on his every word, even when he risks the ire of alienating and disenfranchising those he signed on to help in the first place.
Worth is a fairly routine biographical political procedural, elevated massively by fantastic performances from Michael Keaton and Stanley Tucci.