To understand what kind of a film “Bad Education” seeks to be, it’s important to first be introduced to the values of the world director Cory Finley and screenwriter Mike Makowsky bring audiences into.
Set in an affluent Long Island community, Roslyn School District Superintendent Frank Tassone aims to make his district number one in America (they’re number four) and the school board president begins his meeting updates by tallying up how many Roslyn students have been admitted to elite universities.
“The better the school system, the higher the price tag on the homes,” one grateful community member (and real estate agent) brags to Tassone in the film’s opening moments.
Money and status are the keys to power in this world, and Finley and Makowsky find their way to communicating elitism to a broad audience with a dark, subtle humor and smart writing.
Based on a true story, the film follows Roslyn’s school system as it navigates a financial scandal that could destroy not only the school’s finances, but the reputations of its seemingly perfect staff.
“Bad Education” gives Hugh Jackman the opportunity to show off the biggest part of his on-screen persona – the relentless charm of a showman – in a way that other actors might turn into a snake-oil salesman, but that the Australian actor turns into a revealing, nuanced look into the effects of the public education system on those who work to help kids excel.
The allure of casting Jackman as Tassone preys on the film’s audience by luring them into a false sense of security with the performer that masks his character’s true intentions. There’s a sense of naturally rooting for Jackman that extends over to Tassone as audiences watch everyone in the world of the film faun over Tassone and place him on a pedestal.
Viewers who come into “Bad Education” without any history with the true story may be confused as to how things turned sideways for Roslyn. One Jackman smile and it all makes sense.
Even in moments where Tassone is forced to verbally confront others, Jackman’s measured approach comes across as genuine to the other characters in the scene and slightly underhanded to knowing viewers. It’s a deep, engaging performance that may well be one of the best in Jackman’s career.
While all eyes are rightfully on Jackman’s performance throughout, there’s an easy case to be made that Emmy and Oscar-winning actress Allison Janney’s scene-stealing turn as assistant superintendent Pam Gluckin deserved a full two-hour spotlight. Janney excels in roles that allow her to elongate naturally dry, sarcastic humor and her performance as Gluckin is a masterclass in facial expressions to convey contempt.
Ray Romano plays a convincingly dopey school board president, while “Blockers” star Geraldine Viswanathan showcases her potential to be a breakout star with another stellar performance as Rachel, a skeptical Roslyn journalism student encouraged by Tassone to dig deeper into her stories.
On the surface, “Bad Education” is a straightforward, simply shot and plainly directed film. But underneath the cosmetics are layers of subtle, nuanced critiques of elite East Coast ideologies and societal pressures to succeed at any cost.
Smartly, many of these themes are laid out in reverse where the audience sees the end results of actions before understanding what is happening in context and the cinematic subterfuge only truly reveals itself after the credits roll or on a subsequent viewing, where minor characters who didn’t seem important at first glance make sense in the aftermath.
If there’s a major flaw within “Bad Education,” it’s the journalistic strings that the film doesn’t tug on as events reveal themselves. Rachel’s investigation into the school’s finances stops dead in its tracks for large segments of the film despite being some of the most compelling from a plot perspective and a deeper look at Roslyn in the vein of the New York Magazine article by Robert Kolker this film was based on would make for a worthy, entertaining companion piece.
After debuting at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, “Bad Education” was quickly purchased by HBO’s film division, which released Finley’s feature on the premium cable channel Saturday evening. It’s sure to be a major player at the Golden Globes and Emmys with acting nods for Jackman and Janney a certainty and “Bad Education” a contender for best miniseries or television film.
With a dynamic lead performance from Jackman and a terrific ensemble cast, “Bad Education” offers up a revealing, subtle glimpse inside the world of public school education on a country club budget and is well worth seeking out on HBO.