Latest 9/11 film asks the existential question of the value of a life

Morgan Engels, News Editor

It has been 20 years since the Sept. 11 attacks. While all of us have spent the last two decades trying to cope with the fallout of that fateful day, attempts to address the topic in movies have yielded a mixed bag that has skewed more bad than good. 

The film industry has been rather squeamish about producing historical dramas that attempt to recreate the events of 9/11. Paul Greengrass’ “United 93” and the Oliver Stone directed “World Trade Center,” both released in 2006, stand out as two of the few exceptions. While both films performed modestly at the box office, and 93 received critical acclaim and two Oscar nominations, neither proved an appetite for more films of this subject matter. 

Both “United 93” and “World Trade Center” were called exploitative and accused of being made too soon ahead of their releases. Despite most critics determining that both films handled their subjects with sensitivity many potential theater goers remained unconvinced, disinterested or some combination of both. Many critics even referred to “World Trade Center” as surprisingly toothless given its notoriously controversial director.  

Twenty years later, audiences are unlikely to accuse a film about Sept. 11 as being “too soon,” questions about taste are inevitable. As with all films, there is the question of why it should exist in the first place. A unique challenge for any film dealing with Sept. 11  is to justify recreating an event that played out entirely on live television.  

Rather than explicitly recreate the events of that day, countless blockbusters have invoked it in what has been dubbed “9/11 imagery.” The earliest, and most successful, example of this came in 2005 with Steven Spielberg’s remake of “War of the Worlds”, where it was used to reflect on the sense of terror Americans felt watching the news that day. Three years later it was used to similar, though less, effect in “Cloverfield”. Since then it has become all too common for blockbusters to culminate in skyscraper-toppling-set pieces, leaving cities covered in clouds of dust as civilians and first responders run in terror. As the trend has worn on with films such as “Man of Steel” and “The Avengers,” it has grown increasingly hollow; more times than not merely being used to give a film a false sense of grit and unwarranted seriousness. 

Many dramas dealing with Sept. 11 have been fictionalized stories, focused primarily on the emotional aftermath of the day. While Spike Lee masterfully conveyed the sense of grief, anger and disillusionment being felt throughout the nation with his 2002 film “The 25th hour”; many other films have struggled to manage the sensitive subject matter. With “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”, the filmmakers were so determined to produce a heartwarming crowd pleaser they whitewashed and contorted the subject matter into something  that is both cringe inducing and tone deaf all at once. Whereas, the makers of “Remember Me” so recklessly  and thoughtlessly approached its subject matter; they produced a film with the ability to stun even the most open minded of audience members. 

With “Worth,” the filmmakers have found an angle on the subject of Sept. 11 that allows for a film that even the uneasiest of viewers can enjoy. 

“Worth” is based on a true story. It is centered on the creation of the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund. Which, in its initial creation, had less to do with supporting the victims’ families and more to do with protecting the airline industry from litigation. Michael Keaton stars as Keneth Feinberg, the attorney in charge of dispensing the funds. 

The events of Sept. 11 in the film are kept to a train car filled with the sound of ringing cell phones as passengers look out the window in horror, at what is revealed to be the Pentagon. The film then cuts to a montage of graphic news images, which characters are shown watching in shock and disbelief. It is far from any dramatic recreation, but far more startling and direct than most other films.  

“Worth” asks the question, is it possible to reduce a person’s life to a dollar value? Feinberg and his team, which includes Camille Biros, played by Amy Ryan, “Gone Baby Gone,” create a formula which estimates a person’s total lifetime earnings, thus determining how the funds are distributed. This means, of course, that the families of CEO’s stand to make a far greater sum of money, than the families of janitors. Unsurprisingly, this method is initially met with a great deal of criticism. Most prominently coming from Charles Wolf, played by Stanley Tucci, who leads a group that is opposed to the fund. 

Disappointingly, Stanly Tucci’s storyline is treated more as a subplot. However, he and Keaton’s scenes together stand as the highlight of the film, as Wolf encourages Feinberg to meet the families and see them as people. What follows is a series of morale and legal dilemmas. These include a gay lover who stands to lose his funds to his fiancé’s homophobic parents, and a mistress who has two children with a victim. 

Worth is written by Max Borenstein, who to date is best known for his work on “Godzilla” and “Godzilla Vs. Kong.” The film is directed by Sara Colangelo who also directed the 2018 American remake of “A Kindergarten Teacher” starring Maggie Gyllenhaal. Both show great restraint while managing to deliver a very understated film that never slips into typical Hollywood melodrama. 

There are no grand, teary eyed monologues in “Worth.” The film’s cast does great delivering subtle, natural performances. Keaton notably sports the same Boston accent that worked so well for him in “Spotlight.” Ryan and Tucci as usual are also great, if at times underutilized. Ryan in particular is given far too little in the film. Meanwhile, Tucci makes the most of what he is given doing great work as both the Fund’s greatest critic and a friend.  

The film at times can feel as though it is pulling its punches a bit by ignoring some of the uglier aspects of post Sept. 11 America. The film however, does a far greater job at tackling the subject matter than most of its predecessors and thus stands as a great achievement.