'Worth' Review: Michael Keaton And Amy Ryan Measure The Human Cost Of 9/11 [Sundance 2020]

Almost 20 years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 claimed nearly 3,000 lives, director Sara Colangelo's Worth attempts to project some humanity back onto that statistic. The whole movie revolves around a central question: how much is a human life worth? In this true story, Michael Keaton and Amy Ryan star as a pair of lawyers who take the unenviable job of calculating a dollar amount for every victim of those tragic events.

Make no mistake: this movie is not an easy watch. There's real footage from 9/11 and testimonies from both real survivors and actors playing family members of victims that will rip your heart out all over again. But though it grapples with tough subject matter, this boots-on-the-ground, process-driven film is ultimately a rewarding experience thanks to its smart script and great performances from its leads.

Keaton, sporting another Boston(ish) accent, is back in Spotlight mode here, playing a facts-first guy who's devoted his life to studying the worth of a human being through similar court cases. His analytical approach, initially meant to keep him as impartial and objective as possible during the case, isn't a good match for the raw, grieving family members of the victims – his heart is in the right place, but he comes off as insensitive. As the top dog at the firm, he delegates most of the face to face meetings to Amy Ryan (aces as usual) and their staffers (Shunori Ramanathan and Ato Blankson-Wood), who listen to the families' soul-crushing stories and struggle to boil down those experiences into a number. "Somebody's going to have to do the vulgar work of putting numbers on a check," one character says, and during a number-crunching session, Keaton works out that a CFO working in the Twin Towers might be worth $14.2 million while a dishwasher in the same building may only be worth $350,000. The crux of the film is how his character slowly realizes that his formula can't always account for the complex circumstances of every family member. Once he starts meeting the families personally, it becomes harder to think of them as pure numbers – they're vibrant people with bills to pay and broken hearts, and getting to know them puts a weight on Keaton's shoulders that isn't easy to shake off.

His team calculates that they need at least 80% of the approximately 6,000 victims to opt in to their victim compensation fund, otherwise the resulting lawsuits could be lengthy and expensive enough to bring down the entire U.S. economy. That tension gives the movie its stakes and a ticking clock that's easy to understand, and Colangelo makes it even easier for the audience by having a character write the 80% goal on a big whiteboard and update the firm's current percentage of opt-ins as it inches closer to their target.

One of their biggest obstacles comes in the form of Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci), a grieving activist husband who starts a multi-pronged campaign pointing out how the fund's formula is unjust. Tucci, so often a comforting cinematic presence, is in top form here, imbuing Wolf with a palpable sadness and a quiet righteousness which comes from knowing that he has the moral high ground. I can imagine that combination going wrong in the hands of another actor, but Tucci brings so much compassion to his work that he strikes the perfect balance of what's needed for the story. The scenes in which Keaton and Tucci have ideological face-offs are the movie's best, and thankfully, they butt heads many times.

All too often, I find myself learning the death toll of a disaster, shaking my head in sadness, and moving on with my day. That type of compartmentalization seems essential to daily survival, but those compartments don't deserve to be buried forever. By humanizing the events of such a huge tragedy, Sara Colangelo shines a light on both the victims and the forgotten bystanders who were left behind, opening that closed-off compartment once more and bringing those folks back to the forefront. I would not have expected such a grounded story from the writer of Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island, but Max Borenstein's script is one of the film's pleasant surprises. Worth is like 2020's version of The Report: a small but harrowing true story told with intelligence, in which most of the satisfaction is derived from watching A-list actors engage with a wonderful script. I eagerly await Colangelo's next movie, but it won't be easy to shake this one.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10