Synopsis – The beloved superintendent of New York’s Roslyn school district and his staff, friends and relatives become the prime suspects in the unfolding of the single largest public school embezzlement scandal in American history.
My Take – In some countries it is true that a town or district is only as good as its school system. But what if the funds allocated to better the educational complex are actually used for the personal means of the administration, even though their contributions to the said system can be counted as remarkable? This unethical practice makes the set up for director Cory Finley’s sophomore effort, which premiered last year at the Toronto International Film Festival to much acclaim and got picked up by HBO, a true story about the biggest embezzlement scandal in American public school history.
Based on the New York magazine article The Bad Superintendent by Robert Kolker, which focused on the suburban scandal that shook the Roslyn School District, which in the midst of its boom times made headlines about how its administrators swindled millions to pay for their fancy cars, homes, first class trips to Las Vegas among other luxuries. A shocking event which the film’s writer Mike Makowsky lived through as a Roslyn student, and tells rather excellently here.
Though the film’s well-paced, taut drama may not carry the same significance of other exposition tales like Spotlight or All The President’s Men, but from the characters’ points of view the world is on fire and so the tension is palpable in almost every scene.
Most importantly, director Finley (Thoroughbreds) rejects the sensationalism of a typical Hollywood treatment for a more restrained deconstruction of a white-collar crime, and leaves us enough crumbs to know that something shady is afoot, building enough intrigue before assembling all the pieces with clinical precision. And what might have been an Oscar contender will instead almost surely bring more Emmy love for Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney, who literally own the whole feature with their exceptional performances.
The story follows Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman), who has been the superintendent of Long Island’s Roslyn school district for the past ten years. An unusually charming and fair man in his position who makes the effort to learn every student’s name, their interests front to back, leans on the parents in the community to help get their kids into good colleges, is wonderful with teachers and even real estate agents whose house values depend on the scores of the school district.
Most importantly, along with his trusted vice superintendent, Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney), he has shepherded Roslyn High public school to No. 4 in the national rankings. An element which plays an important part in his new project called Skywalk, which with a huge budget of $7 million, proposes to take Roslyn to No. 1 in the country.
However, unsuspecting trouble begins when Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan), a budding reporter for the school newspaper, while writing a puff piece on Skywalk, gets a good intentioned push from Tassone, which leads her to unraveling a decade long list of unsanctioned mysterious invoices made to the school, especially made by Gluckin, who along with her family, has been using the school district’s credit card for years and have essentially stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars. The scandal is bigger than anyone could have thought and the disbelief that it could be worse is swept under the carpet.
The film, no doubt, benefits from a meaty story that keeps you on the edge of your seat. The fact that Tassone is the one who encourages the student journalist to write a story rather than making her write a puff piece is perfect irony. Here, director Finley sets up every piece on a house-of-cards footing. It’s clear that something much larger is going on, and that Frank knows what it is. It’s equally clear that he’s a master of excuses, evasions, and manipulation, and that as his challenges escalate, he’ll up his game in order to keep things quiet. That dynamic turns the film into an enjoyably low-key exercise in tension, built around the very simple question of how long Frank can keep the plates spinning, and how loud a crash they’ll make when they all inevitably fall.
Also the screenplay by Roslyn alum Mike Makowsky gives the story an observational eye and dramatic shape, while also highlighting the moral issues at its core. Like other films about compulsive theft and self-delusion, this film also aims to make its supposed villains simultaneously approachable and unknowable by distancing them from the crimes they’re committing, and by downplaying any sense of the damage they caused. We see both Tassone and Gluckin complain about their underpaid jobs as public servants.
They believe a life dedicated to the service of the public must be rewarded with the luxury of expensive suits, backyard pools, houses in New York and Nevada, and first class flights to Europe. These are people who have enjoyed their opportunities of upward social mobility for so long that they think they are entitled to these flagrant displays of privilege — and they’re even ready to steal from the public for it.
They’ve all become so accustomed to rationalizing the self-serving ways of their narrow personal agendas, they have somehow convinced themselves their crimes are noble and for the greater good. It is this white privilege which prompted parents to bribe colleges to get their children into elite colleges in the 2019 admissions scandal, as if they were being denied what was rightfully theirs. While it does invite viewers to think over all the implications of that moment, and how easily things could have gone differently for both Frank and Rachel.
And as the scandal unfolds, director Finley and screenwriter Mike Makowsky use this as just one reminder that Tassone earned everything that happens to him, even if he does seem like a broadly sympathetic character.
However the film’s most notable flaw is the character of Rachel herself. Though there’s a self-righteous pleasure in watching the district’s crimes being revealed, and watching Rachel learn and earn her confidence even as she’s becoming more disillusioned with the world. But the film eventually comes to feel surface-level and shallow where both of them are concerned. It reduces her motives to a few pat scenes with Frank and her father, and lays out Frank’s motives in an unconvincing monologue about slippery slopes. It tells an entertaining story, but doesn’t illuminate it in an insightful or ambitious way like it initially seemed to be aiming at.
Though the film lacks some stylistic panache, it makes up for with terrific dialogue. A scene where Frank delivers a sermon to a 6th grader and his neurotic mother about how to spell the word ‘accelerate’ being the highlight.
With a cast that hardly ever misses the mark on any of their projects, I wasn’t all that surprised to see them being great here as well. Hugh Jackman in one of his best roles in years, since Logan, uses his placid charm to carry not just the story, but the tone of the film. Unlike his X-Men counterpart, here, he’s much more human-sized, a slick but seemingly sincere functionary who’s found his exact level, and has the success record to prove it. He’s a beloved, award-winning administrator who authentically seems to care about the people around him, and Jackman sells both the sincerity, and the sense of something lurking under it.
Allison Janney, needless to say, slides into the film so perfectly that it feels more like she came first and the film was sensibly built around her. She summons both comedy and pathos through a flicker of her smile so easily that you forget there’s a studious actress behind the character. Her chemistry with Jackman is great; in one hysterical scene on a school bleacher, she dangles a pastrami-and-rye over him, feeding him the carbs he refuses.
Geraldine Viswanathan also delivers the best performance I’ve seen from her yet, and Ray Romano is terrific as always. In other roles, Annaleigh Ashford, Jeremy Shamos, Rafael Casal, Jimmy Tatro, Hari Dhillon, Alex Wolff, Pat Healy, Kayli Carter, Stephen Spinella, Ray Abruzzo, Welker White, Stephanie Kurtzuba, and Kathrine Narducci are also equally efficient. On the whole, ‘Bad Education’ is a sharp and entertaining drama that is refreshingly darkly funny as well as excellently performed.
Directed – Cory Finley
Rated – R
Run Time – 108 minutes