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HBO Explores The Underbelly Of Elite Public School Malfeasance In ‘Bad Education’

The makers of Bad Education went into last year’s Toronto Film Festival hoping their film would be acquired by a major distributor who’d push an Oscars-qualifying theatrical run — based on strong dramatic turns from Hugh Jackman, Alison Janney, and Ray Romano. In a mildly disappointing twist at the time, HBO bought it for $20 million. It hits streaming this week, when closed theaters and quarantine-decimated release schedules all but ensure it being the most high-profile new release around. Silver lining?

The cast, outfitted in the finest Long Island aughts kitsch couture, faces pulled and bunched in an approximation of normie, practically ooze prestige, turning in committed performances from the headliners on down to the younger bit players (like Annaleigh Ashford from Masters of Sex, a favorite of mine). Performances aside, it’s hard at times to separate Bad Education‘s pretensions of nuance and moral ambiguity from your basic muddled storytelling.

With sumptuous direction from Cory Finley (previously of the 2018 arthouse darling Thoroughbreds), Bad Education tells the story of Roslyn Long Island school superintendent Frank Tassone (a tight-kinned Hugh Jackman with his Dracula wig set to “Italian”) and how Tassone came to be involved in “the single largest public school embezzlement scandal in history.”

That this all took place in the pressure cooker of the hyper-competitive college placement industry would seem to give Bad Education a timely hook — what with Laurie Loughlin et. al still fighting to stay out of prison — and the fact that it was all uncovered by an article in Roslyn’s own school newspaper makes it feel a bit like a real-life noir twist on Election (in my opinion the best high school movie of all time).

Yet where Election finds comedy in pathos, Bad Education only occasionally seems interested in laughs. It feels more like a patient, minute-by-minute exposé in which the characters only gradually reveal themselves. Finley’s direction feels incisive at times, using subtle shifts in POV to convey what each character is learning and what they’re attempting to obfuscate, but the script, by Mike Makowsky, a graduate of Roslyn himself, leaves somewhat ambiguous the question of what, exactly, is being exposed.

With such a detailed retelling of a 15-year-old corruption case that probably wouldn’t even make the resume of your average Trump cabinet appointee, there are the natural questions of why this story and why now. Truly great movies succeed by finding the humanity in all their characters (see: The Death Of Dick Long) but Bad Education seems uniquely twisted up between sympathy and scorn. It could be that the culprits themselves were the wrong lens for the story.

On the one hand, Tassone and his deputy, Pam Gluckin (Janney), seem like compassionate school administrators — taking the time to study up on all their students and parents in order to provide that personal touch. Tassone even encourages the budding journalist who eventually brings them down (played by promising newcomer Geraldine Viswanathan). On the other, Tassone and Gluckin are clearly political and opportunistic, spending school money on fast cars, second homes, and facelifts (Jackman’s makeup is particularly outstanding).

The vague title is a tell. There’s the general tone of uncovering something shocking and nefarious, but Bad Education is far more interesting when it’s sympathetic toward its stated villains. If Frank Tassone and Pam Gluckin personally profited from turning their affluent school district into exactly the kind of Ivy League feeder program the parents and local community all wanted, what, exactly, is the harm? Even Makowsky, who said he “received the best education of [his] life at Roslyn” seems to struggle with this question.

Bad Education seems aware that Tassone and Gluckin did something wrong, but, aside from two very brief shots of leaky roof tiles, it’s unclear on who actually suffered by it. The administrators themselves take occasional, brief stabs at justifying themselves — noting that good public schools are the foundation of the town’s rising property values — with Tassone belatedly pointing out how the townspeople treat them like faceless, interchangeable cogs in the admissions machine, but it never quite finds its crescendo.

It would’ve benefited Bad Education to see some of these thoughts through. Why are the local parents willing to pay for these grand, superficial improvements to the school’s facade when the educators actually mentoring their children are still expected to work for public servants’ salaries? If they game a broken system and no one notices the missing money, what is the harm? This is slightly more than self-justification.

Ultimately it’s hard to believe that Tassone and Gluckin were the good guys here — they were, after all, administrators, essentially politicians, and they seem to have diverted that excess money into their own pockets, not their school’s teachers — the people still working for 40 or 50 grand or so per year in a place where the average home prices were in the seven figures. Bad Education gives brief lip service to these factors but a few shots of leaky roof tiles are a weak substitute for the real victim’s actual perspectives. Were we supposed to empathize with the ceiling foam?

Bad Education plumbs the psyches of its two leads — the closed gay repressed philanderer Tassone and the oft-married, entertaining-obsessed Gluckin. This produces some great performances from Jackman and Janney (surely among the best of her generation) but ultimately I’m not sure their motivations were actually that complicated. They were greedy, vain, and consumed by maintaining their position, like politicians and CEOs everywhere. When Gluckin, exposed first, pointedly tells Tassone “I’m not the sociopath here” the film seems to suggest that perhaps the sociopath is Tassone.

But avoiding that kind of pat, unsatisfying takeaway is the entire reason to tell a story like Bad Education in the first place. Otherwise we could just read the news stories about a bad man who went to prison. During the second half of the movie I found myself waiting for that inevitable epilogue text at the end to just tell me what happened. That’s generally a clear indication that a storyteller hasn’t found the compelling insights they were seeking.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.