Netflixable? A stellar cast tackles a 9/11 story about determining what victims are “Worth”

A quiet, somber and downbeat story of 9/11 victims and efforts to get their survivors to sign onto a blanket compensation plan, “Worth” takes on “importance” thanks to its subject matter and its A-list cast.

Michael Keaton and Amy Ryan play the attorneys authorized by the Bush Administration to negotiate and recruit widows, children and other survivors to forgo lawsuits and settle for a cash payout. And Stanley Tucci plays one survivor/activist who pushed back at their number-crunching and tried to inject humanity into the considerations.

The “names” lend extra gravitas to a movie that doesn’t really need it. Their real “worth” in this Sara Colangelo (The Kindergarten Teacher,””Little Accidents”) is in showing as a simple journey from officious compassion to genuine empathy. The picture and the characters portrayed are almost myopic, buttoned down and narrow in their focus to “save the airlines, etc. from lawsuits” task. These very good actors show us lawyers — some of them anyway — discovering their humanity.

Keaton plays Ken Feinberg, a rich, DC-connected lawyer who, with his partner, Camille Biros (Ryan), specializes in fending off class action suits via mass settlement schemes on big cases on everything from Agent Orange to Big Asbestos.

We meet Feinberg as he’s teaching at Georgetown Law, prodding his students into discussing “What is life worth? The question actually has an answer and that answer is a number.”

Keaton, affecting an accent that fades as the film progresses, never lets this flippant, glib lawyer slip into caricature. Feinberg’s a sharp cookie, a professional, but a man with blinders that he puts on to avoid letting any case turn “personal.” Others may attack him because “to you we’re just numbers,” and have a point. But he’s no monster.

When 9/11 happens, Ken and Camille use their connections to land the “special master” role in setting up and running a compensation commission designed to save airlines and various corners of government from the lawsuits that would, Bush, Ashcroft and assorted Republicans are sure would “wreck the economy.” The lawyers will work pro bono, because this is something they “can do to help.”

“Worth” shows the clumsy, heavy-handed first steps they take, their first meetings with victims’ families, the “dispense reasonable payments” plan that operates on a financial formula built on insurance companies’ actuarial tables. That isn’t going to fly.

“My daughter’s life is worth as much as anybody in a ‘corner office!'” “He’s just hear to shut us up so we don’t sue!”

Tucci plays Charles Wolf, who lost his wife on 9/11 and who organizes other victims in pursuit of compassion, humanity and “fairness.” Tate Donavan plays the true villain of the film, a lawyer for the rich who wants to ensure that the survivors of the rich are the ones who get the lion’s share of the payouts.

The built-in pathos of any tale of 9/11 applies here. To turn the story into something that doesn’t drown in numbers and montages of tearful interviews with widows and family, “Godzilla” screenwriter Max Borenstein focuses — somewhat — on the conflict between the deadline-oriented lawyer and the “give these people their due” and “listen to their stories” survivor/activist. To do that, he leans on the two men’s (perhaps true) shared love of opera, which is the first thing in the movie that feels trite and cliched.

“Worth” can feel ungainly, at times. The film tends to stagger through the middle and late acts as Ryan has far too little screen time as the partner who “sees the light” first, and likewise Shunori Ramanathan is given short shrift as she ably plays a new attorney who narrowly escaped being in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001 and is thus even more inclined to humanize what their work with still-grieving families.

I like Borenstein’s depiction of the “messy” lives that “don’t fit into the mold” that Feinberg’s formula was designed to apply — a fireman with a secret second family, a gay couple living in a state where homosexual civil unions weren’t recognized, which makes the surviving partner another “mold” breaker.

But it is the film’s stars who convey the larger message of “Worth.” We see adults with serious disagreements acting like adults, trying to ignore the “get re-elected” politics of the mostly-off-camera Bush Administration officials, and find compromises.

Sad to say that adults in positions of authority acting like adults — diplomatic, courteous — is the most refreshing historical artifact resurrected in “Worth.” There’s just enough screaming, name-calling and throwing drinks at the “blood money” lawyers to remind us that’s a lot more common in America these days.

Rating: PG-13 for some strong language (profanity) and thematic elements

Cast: Michael Keaton, Amy Ryan, Stanley Tucci, Talia Balsam, Shunori Ramanathan and Laura Benanti

Credits: Directed by Sara Colangelo, scripted by Max Borenstein. A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:59

Little Accidents, The Kindergarten Teacher

Godzilla screenwriter

Rating: PG-13 for some strong language (profanity) and thematic elements

Cast: Michael Keaton, Amy Ryan, Stanley Tucci, Talia Balsam, Shunori Ramanathan and Laura Benanti

Credits: Directed by Sara Colangelo, scripted by Max Borenstein. A Netflix release.

Running time: 1:59

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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