Worth (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): What Is Life Worth?

“Worth”, which was released in South Korean theaters several months ago while released on Netflix in US a few weeks ago, attempts to examine what is really fair and just in evaluating the individual worth of many different human lives lost in one of the most devastating incidents in US during last 20 years. While its initially calm and objective stance eventually is tilted toward emotions and sentiments as expected, the movie did a fairly admirable job of handing its human matters with care and attention, and I appreciate a number of quietly touching moments glimpsed from the long and frustrating legal struggles depicted in the film.

The story of the movie is mainly told via the viewpoint of Kenneth Feinberg (Michael Keaton), a senior partner of one prominent law firm in Washington D.C. In the early morning of September 11th, 2001, he is going to the city along with many others via a commuter train as usual, but then many cellular phones suddenly ring here and there around him when they are about to arrive in the city, and he and others around him soon come to learn of those terrible terrorist attacks which just happened in New York City and Washington D.C.

Around two weeks later, the country and its citizens are still reeling from the enormous shock of the 9/11 incident, but the US government and its high-ranking officials are already focusing on handling the messy aftermath as soon as possible, and one of their immediate issues is how to compensate fairly to each of thousands of citizens who lost their respective loved ones during the incident. While it goes without saying that all lives equally matter in theory, they cannot possibly have the same amount of money allotted to all of those various victims ranging from a poor janitor to a rich company executive, so somebody must set the rules and boundaries to dictate how much they should pay in each case.

Because of seeing not only an interesting legal challenge associated with his expertise but also a valuable opportunity to help his country and government, Feinberg volunteers to be the one who will do that tricky job, and he and his senior partner Camille Biros (Amy Ryan) promptly embark on this legal project along with several interns at their law firm. Feinberg is confident that they will be able to persuade at least 80% of applicants to side with his plan before the deadline incidentally set around the end of 2003, but he and his team soon come to see how daunting their job is in many aspects. Many of applicants are regarding his plan with suspicion and distrust, and some of them have already hired lawyers, who are ready to go for the lawsuits for getting any possible damages from the US government or those airline companies.

Fortunately, there is a guy who may persuade most of these numerous applicants to be more sensible and reasonable with what Feinberg is going to propose, though he does not particularly approve of Feinberg’s plan right from the beginning. He is Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci), and he genuinely cares about what should done for him and many other applicants out there, so it does not take much time for him to draw more attention from his fellow applicants than Feinberg.

While understanding more of the position of Wolf and many other applicants, Feinberg tries to be neutral and objective as much as he can, and he and his team are reminded again and again of how that is nearly impossible for them because, well, they are also human beings just like the people they are handling at present. Wisely avoiding any cheap tear or sentimentality, the movie simply listens to a series of harrowing human stories from some of the applicants at one point, and that is more enough for us to feel a bit of the immensely tragic aspects of the 9/11 incident.

The screenplay by Max Borenstein, which is based on Feinberg’s nonfiction book “What Is Life Worth?”, becomes a little tense when Feinberg and his team try much harder for accomplishing their seemingly impossible goal within a short time, but the movie still maintains its dry low-key tone under the competent direction of director Sara Colangelo, who previously made “The Kindergarten Teacher” (2018). Although Borenstein’s screenplay overplays a bit in case of a grieving widow whose dead husband later turns out to have a very complicated private life, the film still does not lose its balance even during that part, and it does not overstep at all when it arrives at the expected finale, which is pretty somber and anti-climactic but leaves lots of things for us to reflect on.

The cast members of the film dutifully fill their respective spots as required. Michael Keaton, who also served as one of the producers of the film, is dependable as usual, and it is engaging to observe how he gradually dials down his distinctive presence along the story as his character becomes more personally involved in the human aspects of his project. As Keaton’s counterpart in the story, Stanley Tucci brings considerable humanity and decency to his character, and he is particularly good when his character happens to have a honest and meaningful discussion with Feinberg later in the story. In case of the other substantial cast members including Shunori Ramanathan, Tate Donovan, and Amy Ryan, they are rather under-utilized in their functional supporting roles, but Ryan did a bit more than constantly looking concerned beside Keaton at least.

On the whole, “Worth” does not delve that deep into its main subjects, but it is sincere and thoughtful enough to hold my attention nonetheless. Although it does not answer to its moral questions that well, these moral questions are surely something worthwhile to muse on, so I recommend it despite some reservation on whether it works as well as intended.

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