The Netflix drama “Worth” begins with a closeup of a woman who’s the mother of someone who died on 9/11. “If you took your child — blew them up — you didn’t even have a fingernail? How do you go on from there? How do you calculate that?”
The calculation she means is of what that individual’s life is worth. That worth isn’t in moral or philosophical terms, but as measured in dollars and cents. It’s an overwhelming, perhaps crass, and certainly unanswerable question, except that Kenneth Feinberg, special master of the congressionally mandated Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund, had to come up with an answer.
Should a flat sum be paid or one based on earnings? As one high-priced lawyer bluntly asks: Does a waiter at the restaurant Windows on the World deserve as much as the CEO of an investment firm who worked a few floors below the waiter? If trying to deal with all that wasn’t hard enough, Feinberg and his colleagues had to get families of the deceased to agree to sign up for the fund and waive their right to sue for damages.
This is not the most promising dramatic material — legal and actuarial material, yes, dramatic, no. Yet “Worth” manages to combine process and emotion in a way that works. At times, it works so well you might want to keep a box of Kleenex handy. The director, Sara Colangelo, and writer, Max Borenstein, make sure to include the stories of several family members. One of them involves a New York firefighter’s widow (Laura Bernanti) with two young sons and a deeply angry firefighter brother-in-law.
The emphasis, though, is on three principals. The expertness of the performers who play them has a lot to do with “Worth” succeeding as it does.
Stanley Tucci plays Charles Wolf, Feinberg’s chief opponent among the survivors. “My wife died that day,” he announces, “and everything about this formula offends me.” Wolf’s being so reasoned and measured — unlike, say, that firefighter brother-in-law — makes him all the more formidable. Has Tucci ever given a bad performance? He definitely doesn’t here.
Before he meets with the survivors, Feinberg assumes things will be straightforward enough. “No one thinks it’s fair,” he explains. “But ‘fair’ is not the goal here. It’s ‘finish and move on.’ ” His legal partner Camille Biros knows better. Amy Ryan specializes in tight-lipped, narrow-eyed knowing, a quality very much relevant to playing Biros. Ryan begs the same question Tucci does: Has she ever given a bad performance?
Per usual, Ryan gave a good one in “Birdman” (2014), where she played the ex-wife of Michael Keaton’s title character. So “Worth” is a reunion, of sorts, since Keaton plays Feinberg. He nicely splits the difference between confidence and arrogance. “Look, this is something I’m good at,” Feinberg says. “This is something I can do to help.” He had done similar work previously, with victims of asbestos and Agent Orange.
Feinberg is not a flashy character, and that suits Keaton just fine. As early as “Batman” (1989), he was displaying a reined-in quality that has served him, and audiences, well for more than three decades. That quality goes beyond underplaying. It’s almost as if Keaton’s characters stand a step or two back as they inhabit a scene. The showiest thing about his performance is the thick accent he uses for the Brockton-born Feinberg.
Like Tucci and Ryan, Keaton’s become a model of reliability. “When was the last time I took on something I couldn’t handle?” Feinberg asks his wife. Keaton could be asking the audience. That’s true whether he’s in a piece of slick trash, like “The Protégé,” earlier this summer, or an Aaron Sorkin prestige production, like “The Trial of the Chicago 7” (2020). In the latter, he plays former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark. Maybe Keaton is carving out a niche for himself: high-powered, politically connected lawyers. That may be a bad career move, since the niche is even narrower: high-powered, politically connected, good-guy lawyers.
Directed by Sara Colangelo. Written by Max Borenstein. Starring Michael Keaton, Amy Ryan, Stanley Tucci. On Netflix. 118 minutes. PG-13 (some strong language and thematic elements)
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.