Bad Education recounts the true story of Roslyn School District Superintendent Frank Tassone (played by Hugh Jackman) and Assistant Superintendent Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney), who embezzled millions of dollars of taxpayer money from the Long Island school district– crimes uncovered and reported by a high school newspaper. This is what happens in the dramatic comedy, currently streaming on HBO. However, it only scratches the surface in describing what the movie is actually about.
Directed by Thoroughbreds writer-director Cory Finley and written by Mike Makowsky, a former Roslyn student, Bad Education is about much more than scandal and greed run amok. It’s about our obsession with capitalist ideas of success, and what the public servants who drive a community’s prosperity feel they’re owed. It’s about making difficult decisions between what is morally right, and what supports the perceived “greater good.” It’s also, perhaps most fascinatingly, about the tenuous balance between public persona and private life. It’s in this last aspect, and its pitch-perfect expression in Jackman’s performance, that the movie really shines.
Bad Education is surprisingly compassionate and often funny, but it never takes cheap shots or smacks its lips at the salacious story it’s telling. The muted way Finley chooses to shoot the film, highlighting the banality of public school buildings and offices, points out the normalcy of these people, their work, and their community. Makowsky’s script likewise never forgets that everyone in this story–student reporter, corrupt administrator, and concerned parent alike–is a human being, with complex motivations, never fully good or evil.
The performances as a whole feel understated and natural, with excellent turns from Jackman, Janney and a fantastic supporting cast that includes established names and reliable character actors alike. As Gluckin, Janney exudes confidence and competence. She would be a dominating personality if she didn’t seem to genuinely care about the people around her, and love her job beyond the criminal perks she gives herself. As Rachel, the high school journalist who uncovers the story, Geraldine Viswanathan is gutsy, thoughtful, and genuinely conflicted about whether or not she should report what she’s discovered, knowing it would end the careers of people who worked hard to help her succeed.
Bad Education is a well-made film, but it absolutely wouldn’t work as well as it does without Jackman. The character of Frank Tassone, and his parallels with Jackman’s own public persona, comment on each other to the point of unintentional subtext. Tassone is outgoing, attractive and meticulous; all of these aspects of his personality have helped him accomplish great things. However, there’s a significant portion of his life that he keeps secret, even beyond the misappropriated school funds. Tassone’s secretiveness, and his obsession with pleasing others, take on an almost uncanny resonance with Jackman, who’s always seemed surprisingly private for someone so energetically outgoing.
It’s all too easy to see the version of Bad Education that could have been, something that reduced its characters to stereotypes, or focused solely on bad deeds, rather than the people committing them and uncovering them. In the hands of Finley and Makowsky, however, it’s a multilayered film that avoids harsh judgment and embraces a much more considerate ambiguity. It’s a story that feels like it could happen anywhere, with characters who resonate, in some way, with all of us. Bad Education isn’t a showy movie, but is all the more impressive for its lack of showiness.