The first time we see Frank Tassone, the beloved public-school superintendent Hugh Jackman plays in Bad Education, he’s striding onto the stage of an auditorium to a roar of applause. It’s his night, a celebration of his achievements — though, as we’ll quickly come to see, he spends most of his days in the spotlight, too, basking in the admiration of colleagues, students, and parents alike. Frank, who puts the super in superintendent, is the head of a Long Island school district that, under his leadership, has reached the top of the national rankings. Wandering from meeting to meeting in his finely pressed suits, a warm grin perpetually plastered across his face, he has the poise (and popularity) of a Kennedy — and indeed, Frank approaches the job with a politician’s savvy, committing names and interests to memory. But the real key to his success may be that he actually does truly care. In movie terms, it’s as if one of the carpe diem heroes of an inspirational-teacher drama rose through the ranks, spreading his passion for education for the whole district.
That, anyway, is probably how Frank would actually prefer to frame his story. Bad Education tells a different version, ripped from the headlines and shaped into something far removed from the genre of gifted classroom mentors and the young lives they touch. The real Tassone, as some may remember, was at the center of New York’s Roslyn Public Schools scandal, in which a couple of high-ranking administrators embezzled millions of dollars of taxpayer money. Screenwriter Mike Makowsky, who grew up in the community and went to a Roslyn school the year the financial fraud came to light, dramatizes this national news into a largely engrossing procedural of white-collar crime. Cooking the books may sound like dry subject matter, but the film gives it a strong enough jolt of psychological urgency by building a whole house-of-cards narrative around a character of compelling contradiction: a con artist who’s managed to square his genuine commitment to the community (and the future of its children) with his betrayal of it.
Bad Education, which premiered at TIFF last year and was surprisingly bought by HBO, takes great care and time laying out the interpersonal dynamics of the school system, before slowly lifting the veil to reveal what few within that system knew or allowed themselves to know. At first, Frank and the district’s business manager, Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney), are depicted mostly as tireless workaholics, all but married to the job — they seem conspiratorial only in their occasional gossip and workplace condolences. Even as it becomes clear that Frank is living something of a double life, the revelation is humanizing: When a chance encounter with a former student (Rafael Casal) during a Las Vegas conference leads back to his hotel room, we discover that it’s more than grief for a wife that died years earlier stopping him from accepting the advances of various single mothers. He may be a pillar of the community, but that doesn’t mean he can reveal himself fully to it.
But Frank’s deception, personal and professional, runs much deeper than who he sleeps with. Tassone is as slick and jovial as the man who plays him: he runs a book club popular with all the local moms; he drinks diet smoothies; he drives a nice car. His cologne is Hugo Boss, his hair is groomed to perfection — dyed to a fresh inky black. Frank takes pride in his appearance, meticulously crafted to give off a certain image; it’s a finite layer to Frank as a character: He’s always conning in some way. But the film as a whole spills into a history of casual, habitual wrongdoing. Bad Education moves as a thrilling investigative trickle, the full truth taking shape slowly but surely, line by line on a suspicious spreadsheet. In one of the film’s richest ironies, Frank accelerates his own downfall by encouraging the student journalist (Geraldine Viswanathan) who ends up breaking the story to really dig into any and every assignment, even a seeming puff piece about the budget for a new skywalk being built for the high school. It’s as if his true investment in the job betrays his own self-interests. Of course, the former often covers for the latter, too: When the first glimmers of wrongdoing are discovered, Frank talks the board into a quiet cover-up by invoking the damage it would do to the schools. Like most swindlers, he’s a master manipulator, and knows how to prey on someone’s willingness to look the other way if it benefits them.
Cory Finely, the film’s director, launched his career with Thoroughbreds, a film about two rich girls plotting a murder. Bad Education is less idiosyncratic than that quite good teen thriller, but it’s not a total departure. Zeroing in again on criminal conspiracy, Finley draws more disquieting links between upward mobility and sociopathy. And while the material calls for less stylistic virtuosity, the director finds places to more subtly assert his sensibility, as in a superb long take where Frank walks the halls of a school, with all accusatory eyes finding him — it’s a solid stamp for a director-for-hire job. Bad Education also ripples with unforces dark-comic energy, particularly in the ensemble’s tapestry of finely sketched communal personalities, from Ray Romano as the flabbergasted school-board president to Jimmy Tatro as a knuckleheaded relative whose thoughtless actions sets the dominos in motion.
What Finely and Makowsky find in this infamous scandal is a display of rampant rationalization — not just from the perpetrators, twisting themselves into ethical knots to justify their actions, but also from everyone they swindled, willing to ignore what was under their noses because the alternative might threaten their prosperity. A story where the heroes are the raw and intelligent youth who have all been set-up to succeed by Tassone and have yet succumb to the venality of adulthood. At the center of this mosaic is Jackman. Hoodwinking us with his character’s ostensible decency, he plays Frank as a pathological compartmentalizer, capable of completely sectioning off what’s he done from his self-image as a self-less public servant. There has always been something a little compartmentalized about the star, who seems to sway between severe angriness (as seen in the X-Men movies) and glitzy charisma that he’s tapped into for musicals and award-show gigs. (Ironically, Finley delivers a set piece of Frank in a night club that delivers possibly Jackman’s most challenging scene to date: as a man who cannot dance.) In Bad Education, Jackman buries the intensity beneath the charm, letting one peek through the cracks in the other. It’s a gripping career-best performance, locating depths of real nuance in for the life of a con-man. A wickedly smart portrait of the corruptibility of adulthood and the outrageous lengths people will go to for self-preservation, Bad Education brings many good elements, but the standout by far is Hugh Jackman.
Bad Education is available to stream on HBO