by Ken Bakely
Roslyn School District, we are told at the start of Cory Finley’s Bad Education, has been ranked the fourth best public school system in the nation, and the singular focus of the administrators and school board is to get it to number one. The quest for recognition permeates every discussion, spoken or unspoken, in the film’s stifling, upper-middle-class suburban setting; the idea that they cannot be anything unless they feel they are everything. And it is in this context that Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman), the affable superintendent, finds himself at the center of the largest embezzlement scandal in the history of the American public education system, in which he and assistant superintendent Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney), are gradually found to have led a conspiracy that defrauded the district of over $11 million in taxpayer money. The film, based on real events, is both a character study of Frank and an examination of the discovery of the crimes. Early on, we see his strategically worded, manipulative attempts to throw prying minds off the case as questions begin to arise. He appeals to Roslyn’s quest for first place, and reminds them that a scandal would ruin the district’s reputation with the community which passes its budget every year, and harm the Ivy League admissions numbers it pridefully touts. In so many words, Finley, and screenwriter Mike Makowsky have set the stage for the skillfully told story that follows: a look at how easily an environment teeming with rabid visions of achievement and aspiration could be so slickly operated with such little underlying merit.
It’s a complicated, twisting whirlwind of misdeeds, cover-ups, and eventually, desperate threats to keep things secret once it becomes clear that everything’s about to boil over. The first threads are pulled by Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan), a student journalist who, when assigned to write a piece about a proposed skywalk for the high school, stumbles across strange invoices with seven-figure fees paid to consultants and contractors that no one has ever heard of. Despite all of its varied approaches – in examining both the scandal at large and the psyche of the man who is set to fall the farthest from its unraveling – Bad Education operates with a smart, direct approach and a steady rhythm. Finley is a propulsive filmmaker who pushes us through the plot with a bounding energy that never bores us, all while seeking to establish a full and complicated conception of the film’s main character. Jackman shines here, interpreting Frank Tassone as a capable man whose spectacularly brash lies and deceit, coupled with a caring and personable demeanor to a public which admires him so deeply, form a duo of traits that he has weaponized, without ever admitting – even to himself – that they form a tool which so effectively helps him keep his status. He doesn’t compartmentalize his role as an embezzler; it’s simply an extension of his position. The character’s misdeeds are staggering, but this is a movie about more than just the commission of white-collar crime. Jackman creates a portrait that seeks both the contrasts and connections between the parts of the whole that make up Frank.
The rest of the cast is also commendable. Janney’s Pam is both hilarious in the brazen nature of her crimes, and stunning to watch as everything begins to fall apart for the character. Viswanathan gives a sharp performance as Rachel, the young reporter who insistently probes at the inconsistencies she finds, even as her peers and school administrators alike try to dissuade her – with increasing pressure – from searching any further. Bad Education takes a wide-ranging view to its material, and even though there are times when it feels like the setup has been so extensive and so detailed that the denouement is somewhat more rushed or underdeveloped in comparison, it is a testament to the film’s strong performances and textured characterization that we are continually engaged. It’s always clear that Finley is building to something. He carefully explores the material and never lets his movie idly spin its wheels. With this blazing dramatization, he has crafted a study of the insular, obsessive culture of achieving status at all costs which overtook the people in power all throughout this scandal. It took little for Frank to convince them to look the other way (at least for a while), and it took even less of him to orchestrate the whole operation to begin with. To watch this tale unfold is undoubtedly entertaining on a surface level, but the film is also an acutely observational investigation of the people within.