Bad Education (2020)

4 Jun

Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

HBO’s “Bad Education,” based on a true story, begins with the implication of a few important questions viewers should ponder. 

For instance, why is it that one of the top public school systems in the country (in this case, New York’s Roslyn School District) has roof leaks (in many different places)? It’s a bit strange, especially considering the school has enough money in the budget for construction of a “Skywalk” for the students to access easily. Wouldn’t there have been numerous budget requests to repair the roof(s)?

And what about the superintendent Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman)? He undergoes many a plastic surgery to make himself appear forever youthful. He sports many expensive suits to look stylish each day. He takes expensive trips wherever he chooses. He has a luxurious apartment. 

And what about Tassone’s second-in-command Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney)? She and her family have a fabulous home in the Hamptons. 

No one bothers to ask any such questions, because…well, Tassone is too cool to judge, frankly. Everyone at the school worshipped the direct, charismatic Tassone because he was able to propel the school district one of the highest ranking in the USA. They all trust and respect him—his staff, the students, their parents. But we know he has secrets belonging to a second life (maybe even a third life as well) that he wouldn’t want any of his peers to know about. 

Because the school is so highly regarded, it grants students rides into Ivy League schools of their choice. But as a reporter for the student newspaper discovers, there’s something fishy about the budget. This leads to the discovery of theft brought on by Gluckin. Tassone gets her to resign quietly, under the cover of her having a “serious illness”—but that’s mainly because the embezzlement goes farther than that. The reporter, Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan), and her editor, Nick (Alex Wolff), dig deeper into the oddness within the school’s invoices, which promises to expose more than Tassone argues (or threatens) the school will allow. 

Side-note: I mentioned “Bad Education” was based on an actual embezzlement scandal (the largest in public school history) in the mid-2000s—the screenwriter, Mike Makowsky, was a Roslyn student at that time. Apparently, every major newspaper in the tristate area covered the scandal story only after it was exposed in this student paper. I don’t doubt that part is also true, but it’s so awesome that it’s practically unbelievable. 

“Bad Education,” skillfully directed by Cory Finley, approaches this serious subject matter with a dark comic edge—and not with over-the-top asides, such as breaking the fourth wall or celebrity cameos to explain background details or whatever “The Big Short” or “I, Tonya” did. For instance, Tassone’s passive-aggressive approach to those who threaten to expose him and the system for the corrupt crooks they really are make those scenes all the more interesting—you want to laugh at his attempts to cover it up, but at the same time, you know just how far his manipulative techniques can go. There are times when he’ll even attempt to make himself out to be the real victim. Class act. 

It’s played for satire, which is even more effective than performance art. (I like “The Big Short” and “I, Tonya” and “Vice,” to name examples of the based-on-a-true-story performance art pieces, but it wasn’t until I saw “Bad Education” that I realized I needed something a little more subtle.) 

Not a single person asked any questions about how anyone working at a school was able to afford their fancy lifestyles. That’s because no one wants to believe there’s anything suspicious about the behavior from the higher-ups in the fourth highest-ranking school in the country. Even Nick is hesitant about printing Rachel’s story because Tassone is writing his college recommendation letter. 

Hugh Jackman turns in one of his very best performances as Frank Tassone, the narcissistic,  likable authority figure with many secrets as well as talents for impressing those around him. It also helps that he has the ability to form connections with teachers, students, and the students’ parents. There’s a wonderful scene where a worried mother brings in her autistic son, and Tassone is able to connect with him. That’s all I’ll say about the scene—you have to see it to try and interpret what could be on Jackman’s mind as he plays it. I know this is an HBO film, but don’t waste his talent on an Emmy—give him an Oscar nomination!

Also great are Allison Janney as Gluckin and Ray Romano as the school board president who can’t grasp what’s really happening—even when the story is printed and the truth is exposed, he doesn’t want to believe it and his heart is broken. (Romano is turning into one of the most reliable character actors of today’s films.) 

“Bad Education” is sharply written, features excellent acting, and is overall effective at being what it set out to be: a darkly funny, informative study on a 2002 public-school corruption that also serves as an allegory for similar events that are still happening today. Check it out on HBO.

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