In her three films to date, Sara Colangelo has made clear she appreciates the pregnant pause, the uncomfortable space when an audience surely doesn’t know what to feel when the characters in screen don’t, and one of the most emotionally vivid moments in “Worth” arrives when she’s able to bring this into explicitly cinematic terms, creating an insert catches Camille Biros (Amy Ryan) paralyzed as she’s getting up from a day of hearing stories from families who lost loved ones in the 9/11 attacks, exhaling as if the breath had been physically wrestled from her. Camille is an associate at the Feinberg Group, the law firm contracted by the U.S. government in the wake of the tragedy to administer a victims’ fund, and while her boss Ken (Michael Keaton) is confident that he’ll be able to reach an agreement with 80 percent of the next of kin over proper compensation to avoid a class action lawsuit, having secured the government contract from being one of the few firms that handled a similar case in the past, she is less certain as she steps up to the front lines to hear of unfathomable pain.
Working from a sharp, nuanced script from Max Borenstein, Colangelo strikes exactly the right tone for a story in which none of the characters onscreen know what that is, evolving into a provocative moral thriller about how the Feinberg Group goes about assigning a monetary value to what the families of 9/11 victims have lost. For Feinberg, who offers his services pro-bono out of a sense of moral obligation – and because he can afford to, the formula doesn’t seem Luke it should be all that complicated, with plans to honor the earning potential of the 7000-plus who lost their lives by taking their current salary into account and multiplying it against their life expectancy. But removed from taking questions from families as his general staff has to, it takes time for him to understand that a single equation won’t come close to achieving the victims’ fund intended goals, such as failing to consider domestic partners of those whose unions were unrecognized by the state at the time of the attacks because of their sexual orientation or creating greater inequity by setting aside a larger piece of the pie for those working in offices on the top floors of the World Trade Center than the dishwashers at the bottom.
While the premise gives Keaton a chance to be at his flinty best, with the film’s powerful emotional arc resting on his gimlet-eyed skepticism growing into wide-eyed epiphany, it offers Colangelo the opportunity to tackle considerations of class and the responsibilities we have to one another that have long been a part of her work in such films as “The Kindergarten Teacher” and “Little Accidents,” but never explored on this scale and the result is astounding. Echoed by a gorgeous score from Nico Muhly, reminiscent of the way he summoned the resilient spirit of New York in “Margaret” while conveying its complexity, the director’s ability to let scenes breathe offers great dignity to all those trying to do the right thing against impossible odds, from Feinberg and his staff to the victims’ families, while presenting them all in their fumbling humanity, grappling with questions that no one would ever think to ask.
Despite a voice cameo from then-President Bush exaggerated for comic effect that feels slightly out of place, the film ably balances its weighty subject matter with a light touch, a tribute to the fully realized characters that Borenstein and Colangelo allow for in even the smallest of roles and a knockout cast that includes Stanley Tucci as the leader of Fix the Fund, a group suspicious of Feinberg’s efforts, Laura Benanti as the widow of a firefighter who lost his life in the attacks, and Shunori Ramanathan, a former law student of Feinberg’s who joins his firm only after the job she intended to take was located in one of the buildings brought down by the attacks. In being so generous in how it portrays all involved, “Worth” pays off mightily.
“Worth” will screen at the Sundance Film Festival on February 1st at 5:30 pm at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City.