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'Worth' review: Michael Keaton stars in powerful, profound 9/11-themed drama

Michael Keaton as Kenneth Feinberg and Stanley

 Michael Keaton as Kenneth Feinberg and Stanley Tucci as Charles Wolf in "Worth." Credit: Netflix/Monika Lek

MOVIE "Worth"

WHERE Streaming on Netflix

WHAT IT'S ABOUT The Netflix drama "Worth" dramatizes the story of the creation of the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund in the aftermath of 9/11 and the efforts involved in signing up families to receive payments from it instead of suing the airline companies.

Michael Keaton stars as Kenneth Feinberg, the VCF's special master, opposite a stellar cast including Stanley Tucci, Amy Ryan and Laura Benanti.

Director Sara Colangelo and screenwriter Max Borenstein depict the challenge of deriving a formula for payments and convincing distraught family members to sign up for them, as well as the ways in which Feinberg's approach to crafting the fund is challenged by the extent and immediacy of the tragedy.

MY SAY "Worth" establishes the framework of its philosophical inquiry in its opening scene, as Feinberg leads a Georgetown University class in a seminar that examines the fundamental question of how one determines the value of a person's life.

When Feinberg is appointed as special master by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft in the weeks after 9/11, the law has a basic answer for this: projections of how much money a victim might have earned over the course of a lifetime.

Our innate sense of justice has another: There is not a convincing moral argument to be made for compensating the family of a victim with a lower level of income differently than the grieving relatives of a high earner.

The filmmakers and their cast explore this dichotomy and the ways in which it played out in this particular context with a matter-of-fact style that grounds the movie in something more powerful than just intellectual exercise.

Colangelo maps out the movie's emotional terrain with frequent close-ups, capturing loved ones as they meet with Feinberg's team to tell the wrenching stories of their loved ones left behind, and the ways in which these encounters shape the approach to bringing the fund to fruition.

A lesser actor might have depicted Feinberg as an aloof actuary, but Keaton presents him as a man coming to terms with the notion that his closely held ideas of how to go about this work cannot apply in the expected fashion.

While Feinberg is quiet and reserved, the actor offers a strong sense of his inner life. There are moments in which he does little more than sit still and stare that Keaton fills with a palpable sense of sadness and concern.

The relentless focus on the personal, rather than the political, extends to the ways in which the quandary at the core of the picture plays out. Feinberg's meetings with the politicians and lawyers on one end of the spectrum are thoughtfully combined in montage sequences with the hearings involving the prospective fund recipients.

Feinberg's encounters with fund critic Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci) provide a catalyst for a re-examined approach to shaping the fund, and are scripted and acted to emphasize the extent to which honest discussion can change minds.

BOTTOM LINE "Worth" is a powerful drama that engages with profound philosophical ideas while being rooted in recognizably human emotions.

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