TIFF 2019 Review: Bad Education Proves Truth Sometimes is Stranger Than Fiction
Bad Education is a fascinating exposé of a top-performing school district that ended up being part of the largest public school embezzlement scandal in U.S. history. I know what you’re thinking; a film about a top-ranking school district falling victim to an embezzlement scandal doesn’t sound all that interesting, but I assure you it is.
Mike Makowsky, who grew up in the neighborhood where the scandal occurred, is responsible for writing this darkly comedic film. It is wholly entertaining and should spark some fascinating discussions. Instead of focusing solely on the spectacle of the scandal, Makowsky takes time to dig much deeper into the lives of the people behind the scandal before the whole scheme came crashing down.
Hugh Jackman stars as Frank Tassone, a beloved superintendent who has taken great pride in building one of the best school districts in the country. However, when it is revealed his assistant Pamela Gluckin (Allison Janney) has been using school funds to pay for personal expenses, Frank has no other choice but to let her go to protect the school’s image. This internal cover-up prompts Rachel Kellog (Geraldine Viswanathan), a student journalist, to launch her own investigation of the school’s financial reports, which ends up revealing Gluckin wasn’t the only one cooking the books.
Director Cory Finley takes Makowsky’s script and turns it into a character-driven film relying just as heavily on performance as it does the subject matter. Throughout the film’s 103-minute runtime, we get to learn about Frank Tassone and what makes him tick. At no point does Tassone come across as a clichéd bad guy but rather a man whose actions are reflective of a career that has seen significant growth through years of hard work and dedication to the community.
I give a lot of credit to the script and Jackman’s performance for making this character so complicated and compelling. At times, I could not help but feel bad for Frank, as he was clearly doing a great job in terms of helping students and ensuring their success in the future. However, what turned out to be a small mistake quickly spiraled into something completely unethical.
Soon after Frank learns about the $223,000 in expenses the school’s accountant doesn’t have receipts for, he begins to panic about the mishandling of funds getting out to the public. At one point during the board’s discussion, he states, “A town is only as good as its school system.” This statement rings true to a lot of parents, especially those who reside in wealthy neighborhoods.
During this same scene, Tassone brings up another argument. He explains how the news getting out about the misuse of funds will lead to the students becoming victims of the scandal as well by having their acceptances to various colleges revoked. These are all big-picture realizations that could very well affect the current student body, let alone the entire community surrounding the school.
Jackman has taken on a lot of ambitious roles over the past decade but playing Frank Tassone is quite possibly the boldest performance of his entire career. This subdued and nuanced performance from Jackman is a new side of the actor we have never seen before. During the day, Tassone must act as a role model for the community. At night and on the weekends, he lives a much different life where he is forced to keep secrets to keep from damaging his reputation. Jackman’s performance is never showy and works perfectly with the overall tone of the film.
Just as great is Allison Janney. The actress has made a career out of playing characters with moral and ethical dilemmas. This could be one of the many reasons why Janney is considered to be one of the best in the business. Pam Gluckin marks Janney’s second performance in the past two years where she has had to take on the role of a deplorable human being lacking a moral conscience. She received an Oscar for her portrayal of LaVona Golden in I, Tonya, and I can see this performance attracting a similar reaction.
Bad Education is a deeply engrossing film about how far people will go to maintain their image and the life they have created. With a sharply written script and a career-best performance from Jackman, Cory Finley’s Bad Education asks its audience to look past the surface to see how sometimes people aren’t always what they seem.