Movie Review: Bad Education
Bad Education is based on the largest public school embezzlement case in history. It follows Dr. Frank Tassone, the superintendent of the Roslyn School District who attempts to cover up the extent of the embezzlement while also having an affair. It also follows Pam Glucken who's forced to take the fall for the scheme at first. It stars Hugh Jackman, Allison Janney, Geraldine Vishwanathan, Ray Romano, Rafael Casal, Jeremy Shamos, Jimmy Tatro, Alex Wolff, Hari Dhillon, Ray Abruzzo, Annaleigh Ashford, Stephen Spinella, and Pat Healy. It's directed by Cory Finley and written by Mike Makowsky.
Educators in the United States are criminally underpaid. As the child of two educators I can say that as a fact. The amount of hours and effort they put in are countless and in the service of children. It really is no wonder this story happened at all and it shows how truly dedicated to education these people were. In the beginning of the film Dr. Tassone, played by Hugh Jackman, is saying hello to everyone, taking extra time out of his day to speak with a parent about an incredibly trivial matter that should come across no superintendent's desk and remembers every single student he's ever had. He rattles off facts about students and their siblings and encourages Rachel, played by Geraldine Vishwanathan, to make her article for the school paper better than the puff piece she was assigned. That, of course, then leads to his downfall.
All of this detail at the beginning shows off how intricate Mike Makowsky's script is. He's able to show us how beloved these administrators are and how very quickly their skimming turns the tide of good will against them. The brilliance of the script's layers shows up early as the initial investigation, the small amount the district auditor is able to locate, is halted by Dr. Tassone. He takes the figure to the board and calms them, charms them with the idea that this could be handled quietly with a tiny cover up. He then puts it to Mrs. Gluken, played by Allison Janney, who agrees to resign quietly. To see those scenes and then to watch as the investigation doesn't stall and the number gets higher. To find out it wasn't one person skimming $250,000, but multiple people skimming over $11 million is a staggering climax and it's done so simply.
Director Cory Finley, isn't flashy with Bad Education, he's not trying to elevate the story with strange angles or perspectives, but his work at movement builds on Makowsky's strong script. You see the staging of characters in certain ways and the great cut scenes that add to the plot. This is thanks to Lyle Vincent's smooth, assured camera work as he glides us through the campus to see where the cracks in the foundations are. This is thanks to Louise Ford's insertion of scenes that augment the action, that bring up the pathos of the moment. These elements didn't need to be extraordinarily flashy when they're so good already at building the story and tension.
The biggest tragedy of the piece for me, though wasn't the taxpayer money stolen. As I mentioned, I'm very nearly on the side of the educators on this one. It's that Frank Tassone's thirty-three year relationship with his domestic partner, Tom, was a secret. Frank has a story that he told about his wife dying long ago and he has a stock photograph of a bride on his desk. He avoids the advances of a parent in the community and there's a hint that the woman's just not his type. He begins a relationship with a younger man, a former student now in his thirties. It's sweet and it's only later we find out it's an affair. The cruelest blow is as federal investigators question Tom and engage in baiting tactics to try and get him to testify against Frank and denying his rights as a domestic partner. I can see why Frank kept it a secret and it's disgusting that he had to.
Hugh Jackman is stellar as Frank. He hits the emotional notes and the human notes just perfectly and Allison Janney is likely the greatest character actress to have ever graced the screen, but I want to write here about their co-star in this, Geraldine Vishwanathan. As the teenage reporter Rachel, Vishwanathan is shy at first. She downplays her abilities and struggles against bigger personalities, but she doesn't give up. She finds her voice and her tenacity, digging deeper. It's a great performance to watch because we can see her transformation as the school year progresses and we can see on her face the pieces coming together. It's a wonderful quiet performance in the midst of a lot of big choices.
Bad Education is a really great crime film. It has the layers and the later revelations that make you want to go back and look at entire scenes differently. The acting is superlative and the film comes together spectacularly. I would recommend you make time for this one and think about the educators who, even now in this time of quarantine and uncertainty, are doing everything they can to keep students on track.