Releasing onto Netflix in time for the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Sara Colangelo’s Worth (2020) asks the daunting question of valuing a human life and the emotional turmoil of asking an individual to calculate that number in dollars and cents. That is the task of Ken Feinberg (Michael Keaton) and Camille Biros’s (Amy Ryan) law firm after the tragedy of the September 11th attacks, a task only Feinberg jumps at the opportunity to pursue. Just over a week after the attacks, the US Congress passed a bill to compensate the families of those that were lost, with the promise of not suing the airlines involved in the attacks, an act we are told would sink the economy, with Feinberg’s task to be to find the right number value for this compensation.
The film is setup well and has a high level of care given to the events that tell the audience immediately the sort of 9/11 drama this will be. Yes, there will be emotional scenes with grieving families breaking down in law offices, but the film will not confront you with the horrors of the events, that is not where its interests lie.
Keaton is a standout here, having an impressive command of the film while never being flashy, maintaining a consistent and measured demeanour, never wanting the emotional weight of tragedy the job requires to cloud his judgement. There are no “they knew!” scenes of emotional release that Spotlight had here – which won’t help it come awards season – the emotion of the film instead was carried through the circumstances and the testimonies of the families, an aspect Colangelo never abused, peppering these scenes in to create a measured flow to the film.
But this was no one-man show. The whole cast was excellent and individualised, especially Amy Ryan and Shunori Ramanathan, who at times were given the task of grounding and transferring the emotional weight of the film from the families to the firm, something she did with a certain energy and grace that was quite remarkable. It did on occasion lean too heavily into the tropes of the grizzled boomer man needing to be taught empathy by the women in his life, but the performances of Keaton, Ryan, and Ramanathan ground it just enough to avoid falling over.
Colangelo and cinematographer Pepe Avila del Pino (who worked together on Colangelo’s complex previous film The Kindergarten Teacher) also created an engaging and compelling visual language to Worth that should be celebrated. There’s a heavy use of negative space throughout the film, emphasising the isolation the lawyers are feeling as they attempt to connect with different parties, as well as an interesting use of centre framing, something quite unique in this sort of biopic film that stylises it in a singular way. Too often movies of this nature focus too much on dialogue in dull fluorescent lit offices and ignore the infinite ways filmmaking techniques can communicate a theme and emotion that makes the best films so impactful.
One area that didn’t feel as considered as the framing, however, was the haphazard score, with different styles being thrown around between very quiet and sterile scenes. Even with the musical connection of opera and classical music being formed between Keaton and Tucci’s characters, this bond is never felt on a filmic level, with some score choices feeling at odds with the nature of the scenes they are intended to accompany. Compare that to Spotlight, something impossible to ignore throughout the film, which has one of the best scores of the 2010s by legend Howard Shore. What makes that score transcendent isn’t the flashy, rousing orchestral moments we usually attribute to the best scores, but in how well it connects to the film it is contained within and elevates in its emotional weight, something Muhly’s score falls short on.
The Shore score is measured, inquisitive, and almost mourning, matching and amplifying the tone of the film. The Muhly score, however, feels disjointed with its use of different instruments and styles with no real sense of cohesion between pieces, and rarely matched the emotional stakes of the scenes they were in which limited the film’s ability to transcend the more cliche and typical aspects of the film. It may feel harsh to harp on just this one aspect of the film but it feels a microcosm for the issues of the film and what holds it back from being great.
Worth is an admirable film that is considered and thoughtful about an important time in our history that needs to be viewed more closely and has set Colangelo up for a potentially long career oscillating between indie and studio filmmaking. It’s worth your time. (I couldn’t help myself.)
Worth is currently streaming on Netflix.