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edge staff writer


‘Bad Education’ shows a school for scandal

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There are a multitude of content providers out there vying for our attention. So many services are producing original movies and TV series for our consumption that it can be easy to get lost in the shuffle. It’s a young man’s game in many respects, but don’t sleep on the OGs. There are some outlets whose histories far predate the current streaming boom and that are creating incredible content of their own.

Take HBO, for instance. While the cable giant’s most prominent original content trends toward episodic work, they are more than capable of putting forward feature efforts that are more than a match for the best of the streaming cinema.

Their latest original film is “Bad Education,” based on the real-life embezzlement scandal that rocked a Long Island school district in the early 2000s. Directed by Cory Finley from a screenplay by Mike Makowsky (adapted from a 2004 New York Magazine article titled “The Bad Superintendent”), it’s a well-crafted and exceptionally performed film, one that offers a look at one of the largest public school scandals in American history – a scandal that was first uncovered by a student journalist.

With an outstanding performance from Hugh Jackman at its heart and propelled by the so-incredible-it-must-be-true nature of its story, “Bad Education” is a wonderfully dark and absurd look at the depths to which even the most high-minded public servants can sink when faced with the temptations that can come from unreserved trust.

In 2002, the school district in Roslyn, a town on Long Island, is riding high. Their public schools have just been ranked fourth in the nation, a distinction that has an economic ripple effect across the entire region. At the forefront of Roslyn’s rise is Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman, “Missing Link”), the school superintendent; Tassone – along with longtime administrator and financial lead Pamela Gluckin (Allison Janney, TV’s “Mom”) – has pushed the school toward the top of the rankings … and they’re shooting for number one.

However, all is not as it seems. Gluckin drives a fancy car and has a second home on the beach and generally appears to live a lifestyle above her perceived means. We soon learn that she does that by charging significant amounts to the district and then using her position to cook the books and cover her tracks. But when her son Jim (Jimmy Tatro, “Stuber”) uses the district’s credit card to buy thousands of dollars of supplies for a home remodel, she gets caught.

The school board, led by Bob Spicer (Ray Romano, “The Irishman”), convenes after a discrepancy of a quarter-million dollars is uncovered. The board wants to go to the cops, but Tassone talks them down, reminding them of the repercussions should word get out of their irresponsibility. Pam is asked to reimburse the funds and step down in lieu of legal action, which she does, though not without some anger, aimed largely at Tassone.

The source of that anger is borne out as a young writer for the school paper named Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan, TV’s “Miracle Workers”), ostensibly writing a puff piece about the school’s soon-to-come skywalk project, starts to dig into the particulars of the district’s finances. What she uncovers goes far deeper than a mere quarter-million; the more she explores, the more she discovers that there is financial malfeasance on the order of multiple millions of dollars … and Gluckin isn’t the only high-level administrator involved.

Just ask Frank Tassone.

As it all unravels, we watch as the tenuous house of cards begins to come tumbling down. Years of hands in the till has led to a scandalous amount of taxpayer money making its way into the pockets of those trusted with its proper handling. Tassone has all manner of secrets that these circumstances will drag from the shadows into the light – and the repercussions will be dire.

“Bad Education” could have easily been a bad movie, a Lifetime-esque collection of prurient details and salaciousness. But by using the scandal as a framework rather than the pure focus, the filmmakers are given much more freedom to build a compelling narrative. Sure, the situation alone could have made for a passable film, but by focusing on the characters involved, we get something much better. Far from bad, this movie is legitimately good.

There’s a lot of fun to be had with the unbelievable nature of the true story; just the sheer degree of chutzpah and/or ineptitude displayed by the major players is impressive. And the filmmakers clearly understand that, mostly allowing the lunacy of the premise to carry the day – when you’ve got a prime cut, you can let the beef speak for itself. Granted, there are a couple of subplots that are probably unnecessary, story elements that feel superfluous, but even those are engaging enough in their way.

Still, what truly elevates “Bad Education” is the quality of the performances. It starts at the top; Hugh Jackman is straight-up incredible in this role. It’s subtler than what he’s usually asked to do, but he proves more than capable of handling the nuance. It’s a wonderfully layered performance, finding a great way to slap a gladhanding, grinning veneer atop a much more fractured, darker character. Among the best performances of his career.

The rest of the cast is killer as well. Janney is exceptional – big surprise, because she’s always exceptional. No one can find empathy amidst the sharp edges like she can. Great work as usual from her. Young Viswanathan is wonderful as well, holding her own admirably as she goes one-on-one with giants like Jackman and Janney. Romano continues one of the most unlikely evolutions in recent Hollywood history; the past five years have shown him to be not just a good actor for a former comedian, but a good actor period. And so on and so forth – the ensemble is strong top to bottom.

“Bad Education” is a smart, sharp telling of a true story, one whose compelling real-life narrative is elevated by great performances, including a top-five career turn from Hugh Jackman. It’s definitely worth checking out – you might even learn something.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 27 April 2020 11:13


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