Every day, we see corruption seeping through the cracks in the corridors of power. Rather than trying to hide it, President Trump slaps us in the face with it. Hell, on live television, he basically copped to colluding with foreign countries to investigate his political rival, Joe Biden. And that was last year, making the fact that he remains in office all the more frustrating.
Now more than ever, it’s refreshing to see a story in which the corrupt actually suffer consequences for their wicked ways. HBO’s Bad Education tells the true tale of the largest public-school embezzlement scandal in American history.
The film immediately immerses you in a suburban school atmosphere. You can practically smell pencil shavings and feel the fluorescent lights beating down on you. Cinematographer Lyle Vincent’s master shots mirror the reverence with which the protagonist views the school.
Hugh Jackman stars as Frank Tassone, the superintendent for New York’s Roslyn school district. When we meet him in 2002, he is largely responsible for the district being ranked number four in the nation. Donning spiffy suits and slicked-back hair, Frank is the image of success. But he’s not a complete sleazebag. He knows all the students’ and teachers’ names. When he runs into a former pupil during a convention in Las Vegas, he recalls a short story he wrote for his English class several years prior.
In lesser hands, this film would simply satirize Frank. However, perhaps because he was a Roslyn middle school student in the mid-2000s, screenwriter Mike Makowsky captures the warmth of lifelong educators like Frank. Amid the excess in which Frank indulges, we see flickers of his former self — the underpaid yet nonetheless dedicated English teacher pushing students to follow their dreams.
Ironically, Frank’s encouragement leads to his downfall. When Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan), a reporter for the high school newspaper, interviews him for what she calls “a puff piece” about the school’s skywalk construction project, he inspires her to dig deeper.
As Rachel pores over piles of suspicious paperwork in the school’s archives, district business manager Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney) grows careless in her criminal activity. After years of building trust and carefully covering up charges, Pam starts using the school district credit card like a family piggy bank. The shit hits the fan after her dunderheaded son racks up hefty charges for home-renovation purchases.
We later learn that Frank is guilty of even more extreme embezzlement and that he’s been living a double life for decades.
The film skillfully pokes fun at these fraudsters in the beginning, but it goes on to boldly break past its satirical surface. Along with Makowsky and director Cory Finley — making a stunning sophomore effort after 2018’s Thoroughbreds — Jackman and Janney capture the complexity of their characters. Frank and Pam are obsessed with superficial achievements, but the film also shows how they want students to experience genuine success — the kind you earn rather than steal. In a devastating scene near the end, Frank goes to painstaking lengths to help a grade-school student pronounce a word in a letter that his mother obviously wrote for him. Here, we see how parents can be just as guilty of rigging the system to help kids rise through the ranks. This is bitingly timely in the wake of last year’s college admissions bribery scandal.
Bad Education makes sense of corruption in a senseless time. Unlike our president, its characters pay for their actions. That is thanks in large part to the kind of journalism he derides on a daily basis. When the Roslyn High School newspaper breaks the story of the embezzlement scandal, you’ll breathe a sigh of relief at the sight of justice being served. We all need that right now.