Bad Education is about a con, but perhaps not the con you may think. Yes, it’s about the largest public school embezzlement scandal in American history, but the mismanagement and allocation of public funding is just the tip of the iceberg in what the film is skewering. This is about the fundamentally broken nature of education- where competition turns students into stats, success stories into slogans, and reputations into justifications for gaming the system.
What’s fundamentally clear from the film’s opening scene, in which Long Island’s beloved Roslyn District Superintendent Dr. Francis Tassone (Hugh Jackman) strides into an adoring crowd of parents and educators celebrating their skyrocketed national ranking, is that this isn’t about learning, but about politics. Tassone preps his cologne in the bathroom in a sequence that could easily be lifted from Jackman’s role as Gary Hart in The Front Runner, and his spirited speech to rapturous applause plays out like any good politician playing their hit catchphrases. In politics, everybody is a liar, and what makes Bad Education so fascinating is its examination of where the facade ends, and how it breaks.
The nature of the deception stems from Jackman, who delivers what is perhaps the best performance of his career. He’s the type of educator whose a father to the kids, easily remembering every student’s name, college of choice, focus, and enough quirky details to prove he’s done more than scan their transcripts. He’s able to dismantle any problem before it begins because he’s a fixer; when a parent complains that her clearly slow son isn’t in the gifted program, he’s able to ease her bubbling emotions with the words of any great politician in a crisis situation: “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of this.”
Given Jackman’s extensive background in theater, it makes sense that he’s able to deliver on the theatricality of a man who lives and dies on the reputation of his district, but as the story unravels the extent to which Tassone has fogged his intentions, it becomes clear just how multifaceted the performance is. When you have a whole persona crafted to be endearing, it’s clearly in the pursuit of something, but key moments of sincerity suggest that being #1 isn’t the only thing on Tassone’s mind. He confesses at one moment that his scam could’ve easily been an excuse to live lavishly or indulge himself, but that he fueled this money back into activities that helped the school rise within the ranks. Is he being sincere, and does he actually believe in this system? Tassone, and in turn, Jackman, is so convincing that moments like these play for ambiguity.
If the story feels centered around how a conman like this rose to through the ranks, the rest of the film is able to focus on the institutional culture that allowed him to succeed. Take Allison Janney’s character Pam Gluckin, a shrewd school board member whose just as cunning as Tassone, but even more dangerous because she’s not branding herself or particularly concerned about her own reputation outside of the school’s. Janney has cornered the market on these types of dark, domineering characters, and Gluckin has the cruelty of I, Tonya‘s LaVona Golden with the personable swiftness of The West Wing‘s C.J. Cregg. If Janney ever risks chewing too much scenery, the film is able to double back and show how a career player like Gluckin has grown into a staple of the culture, and how in many ways she’s the result of instilling these sorts of number games into a system that was initially intended to be about teaching children. When risking expulsion at one point, Gluckin remarks “I went to college for years!” as her out, and the film is savvy enough to let the viewer simply imply what could be a follow up line of “So that makes me better!”
It’s prudent and effective to the satire that the perspectives of the students themselves are kept mostly out of the story; this is a story about the advancement of scores and admissions, and not the students who may or may not have earned them. The one exception is that of junior Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan), the plucky new recruit to the school newspaper whose seemingly straightforward examination of the school’s budget is what tipped off the scandal. The perspective of an outsider helps put into perspective how fragile the system is, or perhaps how unwilling anyone surrounding it was too look any deeper. Either way, it’s a breakout role for young Viswanathan, who does well with the limited personal details about Rachel that we learn. It’s hard for her to hear about how her school’s been embezzling money when her dad is out of work, and it’s even harder to retain journalistic integrity when her editor is getting a college recommendation letter from the superintendent.
Writer/director Cory Finley impressed me a few years ago with his debut Thoroughbreds, a gorgeously formal film with brilliant comedic timing and remarkable framing, albeit some half baked ideas about classism and adolescence. Finley is a playwright, and his heart seems to be with the stage, which is something that comes across brilliantly with the captivating simplicity of the environments he crafts. With Bad Education, he’s working from a much stronger script from Mike Makowsky, one that’s able to call attention to the glaring issues while leaving some things in the background. As per the playwriting background, this film is mostly a series of conversations, but it’s the context of this often claustrophobic environments that make them so riveting, as you don’t have to look hard to see the excess or the ignorance lingering in the background.
It’s hard to call Bad Education a satire when the facts are so blatant and the truths are so crystal, but what makes it so intriguing is that nothing is treated as an isolated, wild tale. While it’s told in a very entertaining, easily digestible way, the film doesn’t make this story out to be larger than life, because it’s a product of a system of self congratulation and warped expectations that exists to this day. Less a call to action than it is a compulsively watchable train-wreck in motion, Bad Education is a film of novel authenticity. Grade: A-