The key to basing a film on real-life events is focusing on the elements that matter, and stripping away all of the elements that don’t. Screenwriter Mike Makowsky undertakes the process extremely well in Bad Education, while director Cory Finley presents the story on-screen with efficiency and a focus on character. Made for HBO, this film represents smart, topical entertainment at its best.
Superintendent Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) supervises a hugely successful school district in Long Island with the support of his deputy Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney). When a reporter for a school newspaper (Geraldine Viswanathan) discovers financial irregularities, it sparks off one of the largest education scandals in US history.
Discussing the merits of Bad Education requires giving the game away in terms of the film’s plot, so unless you are already familiar with the details of this scandal – it was covered extensively in the US press at the time – you may wish to simply take the recommendation to check it out and stop reading right here.
This is a film driven by performances. In particular it offers a genuine tour-de-force for Hugh Jackman, who is often trapped between two personas – grim Wolverine Jackman and breezy musical theatre Jackman. Bad Education offers a distinctive and well-rounded character with a refreshing complexity. It begins by reflecting Tassone as a smart, wonderfully groomed crusader for the benefit of his students. He wants the best for all high schoolers under his watch, and takes time to know their names and to individually encourage them to succeed. He is popular with the district school board, the parents, and the students. When student journalist Rachel Bhargava (Viswanathan) begins to learn uncomfortable truths about Tassone’s paradisic reputation, a different man is revealed. He is vain, corrupt, and even cruel when his career is threatened.
The beauty of it all is that both versions of Tassone are real: one is not a mask for the other, but rather they are two ends of the same complicated person. It presents a real challenge for Jackman’s performance, and in capably combining the two facets Jackman delivers what is likely the performance of his career. In all honesty there is no real mystery to be found in Bad Education. As soon as the idea of embezzlement is raised, it is obviously where the money has gone. The actual appeal of the film is not the story, but how its characters negotiate it.
Jackman has great support. Allison Janney is such a talented actor that praising her work feels like stating the obvious. Geraldine Viswanathan is excellent as Rachel Bhargava, following up on promising work in the comedy Blockers (2018) to confirm she’s one of the more interesting performers out there at the moment. A real surprise is Ray Romano, popular sitcom star, who showcases an unexpected gift for drama.
This is a realistic, intelligent drama with a strong cast and a brilliantly flawed protagonist. It feels timely and relevant, but most of all it simply makes for top-notch smart entertainment.