Bad Education movie review: Hugh Jackman is flawless in Cory Finley’s slickly constructed HBO docudrama
Bad Education's screenplay by Roslyn alum Mike Makowsky gives the story an observational eye and dramatic shape, while also highlighting the moral issues at its core.
Following his 2017 debut Thoroughbreds, a thriller with sympathetic sociopaths in the vein of Patricia Highsmith novels, Cory Finley brings to us the true story of the largest school embezzlement scandal in US history — and the sympathetic sociopath at the centre of it. Bad Education could very well have been called The Talented Mr. Tassone. Like a certain Tom Ripley, Frank Tassone is a compulsive liar and master manipulator, blessed with good looks and a disarming charm. His story is a classical tragedy about hubris, and the high cost of vanity.
In 10 years as the superintendent of Long Island's Roslyn school district, Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) managed to overhaul its education system. "A town is only as good as its public school system," as he says in the film. Along with his trusted right-hand Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney), he shepherded its public school to No. 4 in the national rankings; its students boasted high SAT scores and Ivy League acceptance rates. On a daily basis, he is helping students with college recommendation letters, dealing with helicopter parents worried about bathroom breaks and math clubs, and even hosting a book club for them. He is known and beloved by all in the community.
Tassone's new project involves an $8 million Skywalk, which he has proposed to the board to take Roslyn to No. 1 in the country. Assigned to write a "puff piece" about the Skywalk is Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan), a budding reporter for the school newspaper. In a casual but ill-judged (in retrospect) case of good intentions, Tassone convinces her — “It’s only a puff piece if you let it be a puff piece” — to dig for a bigger story. Only, she unearths a scandal that will lead to his own downfall.
The screenplay by Roslyn alum Mike Makowsky gives the story an observational eye and dramatic shape, while also highlighting the moral issues at its core. We see both Tassone and Gluckin complain about their underpaid jobs as public servants. They believe a life dedicated to the service of the public must be rewarded with the luxury of expensive suits, backyard pools, houses in New York and Nevada, and first class flights to Europe. These are people who have enjoyed their opportunities of upward social mobility for so long that they think they are entitled to these flagrant displays of privilege — and they're even ready to steal from the public for it. They've all become so accustomed to rationalising the self-serving ways of their narrow personal agendas, they have somehow convinced themselves their crimes are noble and for the greater good. It is this white privilege which prompted parents to bribe colleges to get their children into elite colleges in the 2019 admissions scandal, as if they were being denied what was rightfully theirs.
Tassone and Gluckin's greed can never truly be satisfied, because at the core is a void that will consume them and the unwitting victims around them, from co-workers to children to the community. Once Gluckin gets caught in the scandal, Tassone carefully disengages himself through a series of lies, manipulation and blackmail. Pam's niece Jenny (Annaleigh Ashford), who works as a clerk at the office, attempts a Cousin Greg, but he shifts her to another department before she can cause any more damage.
Like Highsmith, Finley compels us to look at the world from Tassone's eyes — to give us the capacity to empathise with him, but not excuse his actions. Knowing the privileges of the white, straight, cisgender man, Tassone even hides his sexuality from everyone in Roslyn. Jackman unmasks him layer by layer until he shows us his true face. He brings a preening, agitated energy to a performance that should earn awards aplenty (if there is an awards season), producing a masterclass in pivoting our empathy and exasperation around his charismatic axis. Digging deep into the resentment that drives Gluckin, Janney summons both comedy and pathos through a flicker of her smile so easily that you forget there's a studious actress behind the character. Viswanathan's role provides satisfaction of a whole other kind, as watching a brown girl bring down people who have abused their white privilege will never stop being cathartic.
Finley rejects the sensationalism of a typical Hollywood treatment for a more restrained deconstruction of a white-collar crime. He leaves us enough crumbs to know that something shady is afoot, building enough intrigue before assembling all the pieces with clinical precision. Spoiler: Tassone and his fellow fraudsters stole $11.2 million from the Roslyn school district; he only served three years of his prison sentence and was released on "good behaviour." As the film notes in the end, he is entitled to receive $173,495 of the taxpayers' money annually due to an oversight in New York State pension law. Whoever called it the American Dream, and not the American Sham.
Bad Education is currently streaming on Disney+ Hotstar.
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