A film review by Craig J. Koban April 30, 2020

BAD EDUCATION jjjj

ORIGINAL MOVIE

2020, No MPAA Rating, 103 mins.

Hugh Jackman as Frank Tassone  /  Allison Janney as Pam Gluckin  /  Ray Romano as Bob Spicer  /  Alex Wolff as Nick Fleischman  /  Geraldine Viswanathan as Rachel Kellog

Directed by Cory Finley  /  Written by Mike Makowsky

BAD EDUCATION - which premiered on HBO this past weekend - is director Cory Finley's follow-up effort to this terribly underrated THOROUGHBREDS, and it once again shows him as an ever-evolving and superlative filmmaking talent.  His latest is an utterly intoxicating dramatization of the real life tale of the largest education theft in American history, all of which was exposed, ironically enough, by a high school newspaper reporter that smelled a financial rat when no one else did.  Not only does it work masterfully well as a scathing high school satire, but as a fact based document of deplorable acts of educational extortion perpetrated by those that are supposed to be the nurturers of our future, BAD EDUCATION is equal parts amusing and tragic.  And it features Hugh Jackman in the best role and performance of his career.   

As for the embezzlement scheme in question?  BAD EDUCATION hones in on the real crimes of two high ranking school administrators in Long Island: Roslyn School District Superintendent Frank Tassone and his second in command in business administrator Pamela Gluckin.  These two were, quite simply, pieces of work: For years they pettily stole millions from the school district, mostly to selfishly pay for their own lavish homes and luxurious lifestyles (Tassone spent money on everything from expensive meals, first class airline tickets, gambling, cosmetic surgeries, and - in one exasperating reveal - covering his $30,000 in dry cleaning bills).  How did these crooks get caught?  Well, when an ambitious minded and industrious student, Rachel Bhargava, decided to dig deep into her school's willingness to spend nearly $10 million on a skywalk (when it was apparent that her school was physically deteriorating around her due to years of maintenance avoidance) and uncovered the schemes, which led to the officials' arrests in 2004. 

If this were not based on a true story then I wouldn't believe any of this for a second. 

As the film opens we're introduced to pre-embezzlement scandal Rosyln High School, which is on the verge of success,  being the fourth ranked district in the country and whose students are poised for future college success.  The school's District Superintendent in Tassone (Jackman) takes great pride in that elite positioning of this school, but always aims for that coveted number one spot, which leads to him pushing for funding for an elaborate sky bridge that he hopes will cosmetically improve the look his school and, in turn, help it with its ranking.  Tassone seems, at face value, like a genuinely caring and hard working administrator, dealing with the daily demands of helicopter moms, problem students, and a host of other issues, but he appears to want the best for his school, its students, and their educational well being. His right hand woman in Gluckin (Janney) steadfastly supports her boss and oversees the school's budget.  All in all, everyone seems to love Tassone and his handling of his job. 

Almost everyone. 

 

 

The one kink in his designer suits of armor is Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan), who has been tasked to write what amounts to a puff piece on the skywalk, and her initial interview with Tassone is pretty cordial, even though he seems to suspiciously skimp on details while paradoxically urging the talented student to act like a "real journalist" and not be afraid to ask difficult questions.  Well...she listened.  Oh, how she listened.  When she starts to aggressively research she uncovers some damning anomalies in terms of who's actually banking the bridge, not to mention that it seems awfully fishy that Tassone and company want this expensive project when multiple sections of the school's roof have been leaking water for years.  She finds proof of not just fraud, but massive amounts of fraud.  Gluckin is outed first as one of the thieves of millions, but Tassone doesn't defend her at all and systematically asks for her resignation while, shall we say, being creative with spin doctoring.  He's scared that this scandal could destroy the school.  Little does he know is that Rachel has dirt on him as well, like how he too has stolen millions to prop up his costly lifestyle to support not only his closeted gay relationship with his life partner (Stephen Spinella), but to also support a former student of his (Rafael Casal), whom he's having an affair with.  Yikes. 

Tassone makes for an absolutely fascinating case study here.  He's not an evil man, per se, and in the early stages of the film Mark Makowsky's script (who was actually a middle student in Roslyn when this case blew sky high) takes great pains to show this administrator as one that cares for his student's welfare.  He obviously wants the best for them, even though he used egregiously backhanded methods to steal from the very school he pledged to make better.  But there's also an underlining egotism to the man as well: He craved the spotlight, loved his high ranking role in the district, and yearned to be liked and appreciated.  But his lust for fame and money ultimately did him in and derailed his career.  He just couldn't keep his hands out of the cookie jar.  If anything, BAD EDUCATION is a cautionary tale of how some people will go to extraordinary measures to ensure their high place on the economic and occupational totem pole, not to mention that it demonstrates how one small and innocuous crime can foster larger ones, building to an ever increasing and self-damaging snowball effect.  Tassone, by his own admission, accidentally charged a random pizza supper to the school's credit card for his first offense...and that led to expensive trips, Botox treatments, and so on...and so on. 

I've always maintained that Jackman rarely gets the credit he rightfully deserves for being a sensational talent.  The role of Tassone seems so finely attuned for the Australian performer, as he's a character that oozes sneaky charm and a effortlessly confident veneer that exudes great trust, but secretly harbors the heart of a two-timing hustler.  This is probably the closest that Jackman has ever come to playing multi-faceted villain in a film, even though this is a vastly more layered and complex kind of antagonist.  His performance is all about maintaining a Svengali-like level of hypnotizing and seductive charisma over everyone around him while secretly keeping his warped motives all to himself.  Jackman's work as Tassone oddly reminded me of what Christian Bale brought to the table in AMERICAN PSYCHO, another satire that had him play an exceptionally slick and well put together businessman that used that facade to hide his sinister impulses.  That, and there's many scenes of Tassone obsessively tending to his facial care - trimming nose hairs, applying anti-aging eye balm, and fussily tending to every follicle of hair - much akin to Patrick Bateman's endless full body pampering. Ultimately, Jackman makes us understand why Tassone was initially admired and later despised, and it's his thankless and meticulously layered work here that easily would have garnered Oscar consideration, but won't now due to this film's ineligibility as a result of it going straight to HBO. 

BAD EDUCATION is joyously littered with multiple strong supporting turns, especially from the always commanding Janney (who so rightfully and recently won an Oscar for her turn as a domineering mother in I, TONYA), who portrays her school official as a woman with limitless power that later has that power taken away, and the actress showing Gluckin's utterly emotional and career implosion is a thing of thespian beauty, to be sure.  I also really liked Viswanathan (so very good in the under appreciated high school comedy BLOCKERS) as the quiet mannered teen reporter that manages to assuredly stand her ground with the likes of Jackman and Janney (no easy feat).  Her character is interesting too, seeing as her thirst for the truth forces her to ask how reporting on these school crimes might not only effect her school, but her own future as well.  Lastly, there's Ray Romano as a school district overseer, and he proves here as he did in THE IRISHMAN that a little bit of him goes an very, very long way in a film.  His character has to weigh on his conscience the thorny and nagging prospects of his school's reputation in the midst of scandal, which could destroy many livelihoods in the community.  Romano has a moment late in the film when his character confronts Tassone's indiscretions that's handled with perfect understated restraint and performance economy.

While watching BAD EDUCATION I was constantly reminded of Alexander Payne's 1999 film ELECTION (one of the greatest high school comedies ever made) in terms of both showing the desperate and self-serving crimes - in one form or another - of amoral teachers that were uncovered by students under them. Both films also showcase how teachers are capable of reprehensible behavior in their quest for empowering the youth of tomorrow.  BAD EDUCATION is also a nice companion film to Finley's own THOROUGHBREDS, which also focused on well meaning characters that get taken down through some disturbing decision making vortexes.  Both Tassone and Gluckin went to jail for years for their crimes, but - as a shocking end credits title card reveals - the former is still collecting a near $200,000 per year pension due to a ridiculous loophole in New York state pension law.  How absurdly shameful.  It's enough to make you want to throw something at the screen in disgust.  BAD EDUCATION is an infuriating watch, but it goes for the jugular of its subject matter and doesn't hold back, making it one of 2020's most compelling, must-see films. 

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