The culture of money, positions of power and white privilege has never been more prominent. With a little power (be it in the corporate world, Hollywood, or any place where the suits rule) one can twist and bend the rules for their own personal gain. Many times, this is done with great hypocrisy, as those in power will judge and advise others while secretly committing acts of fraud, theft, and other illegal and amoral crimes.
The new film “Bad Education” tackles the timely, true, story of a 2004 embezzlement scheme in a Roslyn, New York school district. The crimes were perpetrated by Dr. Frank Tassone (a never-better Hugh Jackman), the superintendent of the Roslyn school district and Assistant Superintendent Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney).
After it is found that Gluckin had been stealing from the district for years, Tassone and his board scramble to cover up what could be a reputation-damaging scandal for his fourth place-ranked school district.
Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan) is the dedicated and thorough reporter for the school newspaper who discovers the true and damning scope of the scandal and begins to bring down the house of cards. Bhargava is upset that money is being funneled out for personal gain while the school’s ceilings are leaking, and the inner structure of the institution is in need of mending.
Mike Makowsky’s screenplay and Corey Finley’s direction are smart and unobtrusive. The fire comes from the story and the film’s performances. Finley uses close-ups, muted colors and a calm camera to paint his portrait. Unflattering as it is, this is the deserved light these criminals have earned.
Allison Janney has always been an actress I respect and one who, over the past decade or more, has proven herself to be one of modern cinema’s most adventurous character actors. Her work as Gluckin is less mannered than her Oscar-winning role as Tonya Harding’s mother in 2017’s “I, Tonya.” In this film, the character is more human. Flawed and self-serving, Janney’s Gluckin still manages to elicit a bit of sympathy once it is made clear how her crimes have affected her family life, especially that of her daughter who is blindsided by what her mother has done.
Hugh Jackman has a good shot at receiving an Oscar nomination for his role as Tassone. The actor digs deep for this one and wipes clean any memory of “Wolverine” or his Broadway-style mannerisms. Tassone is a gay man who secretly lives in Manhattan (to keep up the affluent lifestyle he is used to) with his common-law husband. Tassone keeps a younger man on the side, a former student (played by Rafael Casal who is the polar opposite of his character from “Blindspotting”) whom Tassone sets up in Las Vegas and occasionally flies out to be with him. All of it, his lover’s house, plane trips, his plastic surgery, is on the school’s dime.
Jackman carries himself with the smugness of a man who knows he is smarter than everyone in the room. Tassone is well-liked and respected and instead of living up to his accolades, he decides to use it to his financial advantage and skim off the top bottom and middle of the school board funds. How could he ever get caught? They love him too much.
With the Academy’s announcement that they are easing next year’s Oscar rules to include theatrical films that were affected by the slowdown and ended up premiering on cable networks and streaming services, Jackman’s turn as Tassone could land him a nomination. With his calm and cool demeanor and his trying to keep that outer shell from cracking during the unavoidable fall from grace, this is the best work the actor has done.
The characters in “Bad Education” are ambiguous. There’s no finger-pointing, nor any probing into their decisions to commit crimes. While we see Tassone try to weasel out an explanation of how what he did was “harmless” in the scheme of things , no character is given a long dialogue where they profess their clarity of the wrong they have done to others. It is how getting caught their lives, damn the suffering of the school and its proper education abilities.
We think we understand that Tassone did it to keep his lavish lifestyle and Gluckin did it just because she could, but we don’t know for sure. They don’t let anyone into their real motivations ergo the audience knows as much as their stunned peers. This is a smart move that allows the film to simmer in its realism.
Provocative and probing, “Bad Education” is a film that presents its story with a sly wit and a smart focus. The people involved in this scandal (including the staff members who became complicit in the initial cover-up) are too self-involved to see the impact of their crimes. Their remorse lies in the fact that they were caught. If they hadn’t been caught, this would’ve gone on until they retired or until it so broke the school district became that there was no longer a cookie jar to dip their fingers into.
It is cases such as this one that are representative of the greed that cripples this country’s educational institutions. Inner politics and financial gain too often come into play causing educators and students to get sidelined. When reaping financial rewards by zoning to affluent neighborhoods keeps the “higher ups” in their fancy houses while teachers continue to make low wages, it eclipses the pursuit of learning and the real issue becomes lost. The dangerous truth lies in America’s school system ignoring its most important duty, our children’s education.