Last September, the Toronto International Film Festival saw the premiere of many promising films, all with varied genres and ideas put into them. Among these films was one called Bad Education, a half-biopic, half-comedy tale, telling a story of school embezzlement based on true events. It’s always exciting when a director gets their hands on a movie concept based in reality that’s stranger than fiction, because it means they’ve already got a fantastical narrative that begs to be presented in an engaging way. And this director, Cory Finley, seems to be a great fit for a dramatic farce like this, as he’s risen to fame after his directorial debut in Thoroughbreds, a well-received dark satirical teen thriller. Not only that, but the screenwriter of Bad Education, Mike Makowsky, was a student in the school district at the time of the actual scandal, giving us an up-close and personal viewpoint on these events that many only know from news articles, if they remember it at all. With such a unique duo tackling such an unbelievable yet true premise, it was all but guaranteed that no matter the reception, this movie was going to be an interesting and wild experience. And wild it was.
We meet our protagonist Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) in 2002 at the top of his game, being publicly congratulated for getting the school district of Roslyn to #4 in the nation, boosting prestigious college acceptance rates and local property values in turn. Ever since Tassone became superintendent of the district, he’s done nothing but bring the Long Island schools to success and earnestly tried to help children get a good education, which we see in various moments of him going above and beyond interacting with students. He’s well-loved by students, parents, and fellow teachers alike, including influential school board president Bob Spicer (Ray Romano), who holds entire ceremonies in Tassone’s honor. Tassone’s second-in-command is Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney), the district’s financial manager who seems to vigilantly oversee all budgetary concerns with a sharp eye. The curtain on this perfect school district starts to pull back a bit when high school student reporter Rachel Kellog (Geraldine Viswanathan) is assigned by the school paper to write an article on the new expensive skybridge that’s soon to open and goes to get quotes from the top. When Rachel is interviewing Tassone, she dejectedly describes the article as a “puff piece,” just ego-stroking filler with no real journalism. Ever the encourager of students, Tassone tells her that she has the power to elevate the assignment from puff piece to serious article if she has the determination to dig deeper and find the big story. Rachel takes this to heart, and with the permission of Pam Gluckin to access the various financial logs and business agreements in the basement and the help of her disgraced father (Harid Hillon), she is able to slowly uncover that things are not what they seem. Businesses listed as conscripted for work that never even existed, seemingly nonsensical financial charges that the school never received, it all seems to point to something being very wrong, and Rachel is determined to bust the entire story no matter the cost. Eventually, Gluckin is found out within the office for extremely lavish personal spending with taxpayer money, and Tassone, ever the controlled leader, is determined to fix things quietly even as everything begins to fall apart. Even if you know the ending from the news, you probably don’t know how deep it really went, or how crazy the web of lies leading to the truth was.
There’s no doubt that Hugh Jackman is the shining star of this production. He takes on a role that, while not normally expected of him, he takes to with natural grace. He does great work at keeping Tassone a balanced lead who reminds us that being a protagonist does not equal being a hero, a man that does a lot of bad things but makes you sympathize with how human he is. In the beginning of the film, it’s established that he’s been a widower for decades with no interest in any of the PTA moms captivated by his charm and kindness. But after a chance encounter with a student from long ago at a Las Vegas conference named Kyle (Rafael Casal), we realize that he’s a closeted man who has to hide himself from a community that would reject him. Showed through Jackson’s spectacular acting, Tassone is allowed moments of humanity that serve to keep the audience troubled in their feelings towards him. In one moment, he’s a conman that abused his trusted status to steal school funds, but in another moment, he grants a young student with an overbearing mother extra test time and encourages him that he can find great success in life even if he struggles with learning just like Tassone himself did at times. This tightrope walk could only be pulled of by an actor like Hugh Jackman, and his casting was both unconventional and fantastic, with one monologue near the end where Tassone is beginning to fall apart as his world crumbles around him that especially showcases Jackman’s abilities. Allison Janney does great in her role as well, with her and her privileged family being much more hate-able in the long run. She’s entitled to the max and even when uncovered to her coworkers, she believes that Tassone will simply fix everything for her and nearly has a meltdown when he doesn’t. Geraldine Viswanathan is a believable young intrepid reporter as well, lending believability to the insane fact that this national news was in fact first reported on by real-life high schooler Rebekah Rombom in her school newspaper, Hilltop Beacon.
With the story already formed in outline, the main goal of this film was to showcase the events through amazing actors in an entertaining way, which it definitely did. The writing is very solid as well, taking advantage of the inherent comedy of the situation, but not diving headfirst into it in a way that would make the presentation of a true story feel unauthentic or as if it had been tampered with. It’s funny in a way that only reality can deliver, funny in hypocrisy and how badly things can go wrong for those at the top. But it’s also a tragedy, because these bad things are happening to people that are more than their bad choices, even if they still deserved repercussions in the end. As a biopic with no special effects or big plot twists (unless you’ve never heard about the real-life account), it relies on its cast and crew to elevate it to greatness, and luckily, it seems to have been blessed with a perfect cast and crew for this setup. From director to writer to actors to cinematographers, everyone is giving their all to a story that starts so small in a successful Long Island school district yet ends as a national scandal. A morality play that garners audience sympathy for its lead character, Bad Education is an encapsulating experience that you’ll have to see to believe.