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Worth's Old Math in a Changed World

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WORTH. In 2001, New York City might as well have been 1 million miles away from me. In rural Southeastern Washington, that particular September morning was gorgeous, the changing season having begun to dispel the oppressive heat. I was on my way to class, oblivious as usual, and stopped at the student union, for what I do not recall. People were gathered around the one television set in unusual numbers, which I otherwise would have ignored. But because they were there, I looked up in time to see footage of the second plane hitting the tower; I didn't really get it. I went on to class and, largely isolated from personal tragedy and mired in post-adolescent depression, made a flippant remark about the events of the day. I wasn't callous, really, just ignorant and dismissive. The thing I had seen on the television was only that to me, in that moment, like the events at Columbine High School had been. They were fragments, unrealities observed from afar. I had no context to understand the world was changing, probably forever and not for better.

Within weeks, some of those changes started to become palpable. There was a fully armed National Guardsman at the tiny regional airport. This became immediately relevant, as it meant I would likely not be flying to the Midwest to visit my then-girlfriend (now-wife) with weed on my person. There were flags everywhere. Another war was beginning, one none of us (outside the Bush administration) could have imagined would last this long.

Two decades on, lumbering through adulthood, I have a hard time understanding how much time has passed and what its passage represents as a historical moment. I remain largely untouched by the events of that day, at least by any immediate personal standard. Like all of us, though — by which I mean humanity — alive during or after, I have to reckon with life on an incalculably different planet.

In the intervening period, I have rarely if ever meaningfully marked the anniversary of that day. But this year it's been on my mind. Maybe because a 20-year anniversary is momentous, regardless of what it commemorates; maybe because I am now of a certain age; maybe because we live in a truncated nightmare timeline with tragedy pinging in our pockets incessantly. Whatever the reason, I came to Worth almost accidentally but with a head full of ideas as to what it might mean.

As I am always quick to disclaim, those ideas and the head containing them, were/are quite possibly unfair to the movie itself, a prejudgment based on absolutely nothing — other than lived experience, of course. No other way to live life though, or to approach art or anything else; just that the confluence of events and emotions and memories sometimes makes a given work feel more charged, more personal but also distant, than they otherwise would.

There have been enough 9/11 movies, all these years on, for them to coalesce into different groupings: the action-oriented; the maudlin; the political; the analytical. Worth, with its emphasis on the immediate personal aftermath and the government's shaded cynicism about the victims' families looming in the background, doesn't seem to immediately assign itself a category.

Ken Feinberg (Michael Keaton), a partner in a high-powered Washington, D.C. law firm with previous success in seeking awards for families and individuals injured in broad-based malfeasance (Agent Orange, asbestos), is a bit of a hard-case, necessarily detached from the personal devastation so immediately adjacent to his work. Still, he feels compelled to volunteer his services and the services of his firm to find a method by which the families of the victims of 9/11 might be compensated for their loss. As a means of self-protection, perhaps, but also of pragmatism, he must view the problem as a mathematical one, to be governed by hard and fast principles, without exception. The tragedy he and his team must process is an exceptional one, though, for a number of reasons. The human cost — the infinite variation in lives lived and lost — is the movie's focus, and justifiably so.

But the fact that determinations must be made as to the value of each of those lives is down to corporate interests: the airlines have the ear of the government and their protestations that class action lawsuits could bankrupt the companies (and thereby the entire economy) are what lead to the creation of a victims' fund.

The movie wrestles with the idea a little, as well as with notions of the disparity of wealth in this country, and the fact that agency and representation are, by and large, determined by the number of zeroes on one's paycheck. And it is a composed, stately looking thing, with Keaton giving another grand mid-late career performance (even if Feinberg's accent is a bit like ill-fitting dentures in his mouth). The supporting cast, led by Amy Ryan and Stanley Tucci, do similarly noteworthy work. But to me, Worth looks and feels like a movie made before 9/11: The camera hardly moves, the soundtrack is largely score or opera, the lighting makes boardrooms feel like hallowed halls. Especially coming from such a young director — this is Sara Colangelo's third feature out of film school — the movie seems oddly reverent, staid and unquestioning. It's point of view seems to be on the right side of history, but its notions of resolution and lasting change, like its aesthetic, feel outdated. PG13. 118M. NETFLIX.

John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.

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For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456.

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