With Covid-19 having brought the cinematic industry to a standstill, it’s slim pickings as far as new films are concerned. Many potentially good new releases have been postponed, while only mediocre ones are being released online, as studios experiment with the digital medium.
That’s one of the reasons why Bad Education is such a pleasant surprise. This recent release on HBO, that won praise at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, is not just a compelling watch because of the lack of competition. It’s simply a fantastic piece of cinema. Even in a normal calendar year for films, Bad Education would have done well in the awards season and picked up a few nominations for acting, writing and direction.
Based on a true story, Bad Education is set during the early 2000s at the Roslyn School District in Long Island. The ensemble cast includes impressive acting talent such as Hugh Jackman (Dr Francis A. ‘Frank’ Tassone), Allison Janney (Pamela ‘Pam’ Gluckin), Geraldine Viswanathan (Rachel Bhargava), Alex Wolff (Nick Fleischman), Rafael Casal (Kyle Contreras), Stephen Spinella (Tom Tuggiero), Annaleigh Ashford (Jenny Aquila) and Ray Romano (Big Bob Spicer).
Here, Dr Frank Tassone is a beloved superintendent who loves what he does. He takes a special interest in his students and improving the quality of education. For example, he remembers students who graduated long ago, and they remember him. Alongside assistant superintendent Pam Gluckin, he is responsible for landmark achievements.
Bad Education is a terrific watch even though its plot initially sounds like it may not be grounds for a great film
Tassone’s work has not only improved the quality of education at the school, but it has improved the community. After all, a good school district attracts all sorts of real estate investment, with parents interested in living in such areas.
Because of Tassone’s standing in the community, initially, no one takes accusations of embezzlement too seriously. It all starts when a student at the school, Rachel Bhargava, begins some investigative journalism into the school’s finances. The threads unravel innocuously enough until a conspiracy is uncovered to the tune of millions of dollars. We soon learn that Frank and Pam have stolen a small fortune from the school district.
While the plot may not sound like its grounds for a great film, Bad Education is a great watch. To start with, there’s a real air of authenticity. That’s because the screenplay was written by Mike Makowsky, who himself was a middle school student at Roslyn School District when the scandal shocked the town. Although he wanted to write a film that depicted Tassone as a simple villain, his research showed that there was more to the tale.
His nuanced script has resulted in a rich, character-driven, multi-layered film. It’s also thoughtful, witty and amusing. It helps that it has a fresh filmmaker like Cory Finley (Thoroughbreds) at the helm. It also helps that the performances are outstanding.
Allison Janney is tremendous in her role and embodies the crude nature of her loyal character perfectly. Ray Romano continues to impress after The Irishman, as a school board president struggling to cope with overwhelmingly bad news. Meanwhile, Hugh Jackman delivers the highlight of his career. In a riveting performance, he grabs our attention, even when the film takes time to find its footing in the first act. Playing a man who has started to believe his own lies, Hugh Jackman shows that he is one of the most versatile and charismatic actors of our time. He’s the antagonist of this tale yet, somehow, almost makes us feel sorry for his character.
Published in Dawn, ICON, May 17th, 2020