Based on true events, “Worth” begins with Kenneth Feinberg (Michael Keaton, “Birdman”) teaching a class at Georgetown University Law School. He has his students perform an exercise in which they determine, in monetary terms, the value of a life. More precisely, a life lost. Ken is an attorney who uses actuarial tables and mathematical formulas to determine what is owed to the relatives and dependents of those who perish en masse due to the negligence of another. Whenever tragedy might prompt a corporation-crippling lawsuit — asbestos, mass shootings, etc. — Ken saves the day with neat math.
Ken’s most notable work is the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. When airlines feared class-action lawsuits, the government stepped in to shield these companies from the hurt and angry people who lost loved ones in the 9/11 attacks. By appointing Ken’s firm as the “special master” of the fund, they gave him sweeping authority, and a little more than two years, to satisfy 80% of potential claimants with an objective formula for compensation with public money. What Ken and the Bush Administration failed to recognize is that an objective formula could never account for the myriad idiosyncrasies of each claimant’s case.
The film follows Ken’s gradual (well, it isn’t so gradual for him; he resists until the very end) warming to the idea that a formula cannot solve every problem. He is pushed in this direction by Charles Wolf Jr. (Stanley Tucci, “Spotlight”), a claimant and leader of the underdogs, who is determined to “Fix the Fund.” He succeeds, but only after a contrived meeting with Ken at the opera, of all places.
This movie is a letdown. I don’t know what writer Max Borenstein (“Godzilla vs. Kong”) thought would come of a movie about a government initiative to shield corporations from the rightful anger of thousands. The 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund wasn’t really a success: the money has long run out, and been replenished, and run out again as new illnesses linked to Ground Zero develop in New York residents and first responders.
As a general rule, movies about the insufficiencies of actuarial tables probably won’t be very good. But released to Netflix on Sept. 3 of this year, I saw the film through a different lens.
The movie was first shown in 2020, but watching it just over a week ago for the first time is a different experience. In light of the Taliban’s recapture of Afghanistan and the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the film’s focus seems all wrong.
The U.S. exit from Afghanistan is considered a disaster with the Taliban now controlling all of Afghanistan. American and coalition forces left allies behind and American weapons in the hands of the Taliban. The war itself was a failure: America’s hubristic attempt at nation-building cost over 172,000 human lives and two trillion debt-financed dollars.
For all of the earnestly heartbreaking moments in “Worth,” the predictable and soapy storyline is a disgrace to those lives lost and broken.
Daily Arts Writer Ross London can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.