Review: “Bad Education”

In light of the 2019 college admissions scandal, “Bad Education” feels like a very timely movie.  But it’s actually based on a true event that occurred in the early 2000s.  Set in the small Long Island town of Roslyn, it explores the largest public school embezzlement scandal in American history.

Directed by Cory Finley and written by Mike Makowsky (who attended Roslyn Middle School at the time of the events of this film), the story centers around Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman), the superintendent of the Roslyn school district.  The beginning of the film establishes Frank as being well-liked by the school’s parents, students, and his colleagues.  He is friendly, down-to-earth, and goes above and beyond at his job.  When Roslyn High School student reporter Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan) goes to Frank’s office to interview him for what she refers to as a puff piece, he encourages her, saying that it is only a puff piece if she lets it become one.  Meanwhile, it’s discovered that the school’s assistant superintendent, Pamela Gluckin (Allison Janney) has been racking up a large amount of personal purchases on the school’s credit card.  Frank, upon hearing about this news, thrusts all the blame upon Pam and insists on keeping the scandal on the down-low so it doesn’t threaten the school district’s reputation and impact their number of college admissions.  But as Rachel (inspired by Frank’s own words to her) does some digging of her own, it comes to light that Frank has also been stealing from the school over the course of many years as well, using thousands of dollars to fund a lavish lifestyle that includes plastic surgery, first class flights to London, nice cars, and multiple homes.

Bad Education Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney Photograph by JoJo Whilden/HBO

Jackman gives a career-best performance as Frank.  He peels back the layers of the character as the film progresses in a way that comes off as entirely naturally.  At the start of the film, his Frank is charismatic and likeable, but there’s also an aloofness to him that gives that charm just the slightest touch of phoniness.  As the story progresses, he transforms into a quietly threatening presence that is at times terrifying to behold, and it’s a credit to Jackman’s talent that it is able to convey all these layers to the character so clearly and believably.  Janney’s role is smaller but equally impressive.  Her character is bold and dominates every scene she’s in, to the point where it’s hard to believe she’s playing someone from the real world and that this role wasn’t written specifically with her in mind.  Other memorable supporting cast members include Ray Romano, Alex Wolff, Annaleigh Ashford, and Hari Dhillon.

“Bad Education” is a bit uneven throughout.  A subplot of the film explores Frank’s life as a closeted gay man, who had an affair with a former student (played by Rafael Casal) unbeknownst to his longtime partner Tom (Stephen Spinella).  These scenes aren’t essential to the unraveling of the embezzlement scandal itself, but they do further solidify Frank as someone who regularly engages in deception.  The film does, however, a great job showing the lavish lifestyles Pam and Frank lead even before the extent of their embezzlement comes to light.  In spite of the fact that none of the main characters are likeable overall (nor should they be), it also gives us a hero to root for in Rachel and her fellow student reporters looking to break the story.

Like any movie based on a true story, “Bad Education” does take a few liberties from the facts.  It’s a shocking story, but it’s told in a way that is engaging and even occasionally humorous.  It may even make you rethink America’s public school system, just a bit—but don’t look for this movie to inform more than it entertains.

“Bad Education” is now available to watch on HBO. Runtime: 108 minutes. Rated TV-MA. 4 out of 5 stars.

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