‘Bad Education’ is a gripping true crime story made intense with endearing straight-A performances. Starring Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney as corrupt academic elites in all their evil glory, the film turns a wild school fraud into an equally wild onscreen drama.Star Rating – Excellent
Director : Cory Finley
Production: Automatik, Sight Unseen
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney, Geraldine Viswanathan, Ray Romano
Write: Mike Makowsky
When Corey Finely’s directorial Bad Education arrived on the film festival scene at the Toronto International Film Festival it was meant to be one of the hottest titles going into theatres. With a powerful star cast led by Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney, the film is hot box office commodity and was up for possible Oscar predictions too. The film, however, went to HBO and unexpectedly so is set to make a streaming debut. This must’ve come as a surprise back in September 2019 but now it makes all the more sense with theatres shutting shop globally and the entertainment industry coming to a standstill during the pandemic. Bad Education is dropping quite conveniently for the makers, right amidst quarantine. Revolving around America’s biggest school district theft that happened a decade ago in one of Long Island’s most competitive institutes Roslyn, the film is a true-crime drama that’s just as crazy as the real events it’s based on.
We’re watching Hugh Jackman fresh off his The Greatest Showman success and Allison Janney after her spectacular Oscar-win for I, Tonya. That was the biggest pull for Bad Education and the reason why the anticipations have been so high. Not long ago we watched the trailer place the two grade-’A’ actors in a wholly new setting.
Context: Bad Education is based on a real embezzlement scheme that was uncovered in Long Island’s Roslyn High. School administrator Frank Tassone and his second-in-command Pamela Gluckin were charged and convicted for theft of a collective 11 million dollars from school funding.
Bad Education is a slow burn unveiling of a headliner scandal
Bad Education is a film best enjoyed slowly. The narrative is never rushed and that’s why when you hear of the school kids and faculty alike speaking of Roslyn Bulldogs crushing other schools in a sports rivalry, you won’t think much of it. The school is at its performative peak with kids aiming for the best colleges upon graduation and there’s a new construction project underway that’s the talk of the town, particularly, the school newspaper. Student reporter sophomore Rachel played by Geraldine Viswanathan drops by Tassone’s office for a “puff piece” about it requiring a single quote. But Frank, being the perfect educator encourages her to dig deeper. Thus begins, her snooping around to find the bigger story, a better headline. Through her many investigations, the drama unveils the key subject of the embezzlement scandal.
The film manages to create a gripping atmosphere by building on it’s characters in a relatively cool manner. Frank and Pam are academic elites, people you’d look up to and manage to pass off as perfectly sympathetic characters, especially Frank. They are so far from suspicion in any case of foul play, it makes their discovery even more scandalous. We find out quite early that Pam has been misusing funding right under the nose of an auditor. But the cover-ups are good much to the credit of people willing to look away from their crimes. The film in its revealing moments goes slowly and then all of a sudden. Right from the initial set up, it’s easy to see that there’s a deep seething problem below seemingly calm waters at the surface. You can’t tell why but you know that Frank knows something. That’s where the more delicious parts of the scandal lie. This plot device leaves the entire story of conspiracies, manipulation and thievery in the hands of Hugh Jackman’s Tassone.
Hugh Jackman is here with a lesson in playing a straight-‘A’ bad guy
Hugh Jackman’s Frank Tassone is introduced as a picture-perfect academic elite at the top of his game. But for all his suits and perfectly slicked-back hair, he’s full of compassion, the kind you only learn from being in the system as a teacher. This teacher-turned-administrator has so much empathy for faculty and students that he remembers all their names, their familial relationships, their achievements even! It is only later in the run-time that you’ll notice underlying malice. This part of him is so good it’s scary. Hugh Jackman does a hell of a job playing the charming guy any school mom would want to hit on. He does an equally good job playing the bad guy. He sells us on his character’s sincere demeanour. And he also sells the concealed evilness of his nature.
Frank is Hugh Jackman’s most human role. This isn’t Wolverine, he isn’t in a musical like The Greatest Showman or Les Misérables. He’s human and a flawed one at that. This is the most opportune moment for the actor to explore his vast range of talents and the full range of human emotions, complex as they come. That’s exactly what he does in his delivery of Tassone. Hugh Jackman is the charm of the movie and his role is nothing short of a masterclass in acting. Combine that with Allison’s brilliant portrayal of Pam Gluckin and it’s easy to see the early film festival Oscar buzz around this one. Viewers will have a jolly good time being both awed and betrayed by his character on-screen.
Bad Education chooses to make the nail-biting scandal emotional
For a story, so engaging one would hardly need much as far as plot building goes. Screenwriter Mike Makowsky, however, adds something to the sensationalisation of the scandal. He gives it a human emotional touch. Frauds don’t just happen after all and both director Finley and the screenwriter choose to dig deeper into the emotional undoing of these flawed characters. In doing so, Bad Education links fraud to personal avarice. Pam slyly steals from the school fund for decades, sharing the spoils with her family, Frank is a major narcissist who only wants to keep up appearances and through the film, their moral corruption becomes their undoing. There is a moral lesson to be derived from the story where viewers almost draw pleasure out of the characters getting what’s coming from them. Bad Education finds fault even in those willing to look the other way and is interested in the larger cycle of corruption.
Another interesting emotional arc is that of student reporter Rachel who uncovers the story for school newspaper the Hilltop Beacon. We don’t know if her parts had a real emotional hook behind pursuing the news piece but the film gives her one convenient albeit flimsy reason to do so. This comes off as creative liberty taken by the filmmakers. I, for one, think it was intentional to explore the role of the press – the New York Times and Newsday among others who carried the story in their headlines back in 2004. Another limitation of the film is that it leaves its protagonists unexplored. There are so many good characters in there and we receive little in the way of an explanation for their on-screen traits. That is somewhat frustrating and a reason to complain none the less.
Bad Education is an academic movie like no other. Watch it for the powerful performances, thrilling story arcs and gripping plot.
Bad Education will stream on Disney+ Hotstar on April 26, 2020.