Playwright-turned-filmmaker Cory Finley is prodigiously talented. At only 30 years old, he’s already made and released his second feature. Finley’s debut, “Thoroughbreds” (2018), was thoroughly accomplished. “Bad Education,” which debuted at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival before premiering on HBO Saturday, Apr. 25, is even better. Finley is a unique voice – a Millennial whose works thus far have traded in being tied to crime, being droll AF and having an air of East Coast affluence about them.
“Bad Education,” which is loosely based on a true story and was inspired by Robert Kolker’s 2004 New York magazine article, “The Bad Superintendent,” chronicles the single largest public school embezzlement scandal in American History. It’s 2002 in Long Island, NY. Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) is the consummately coiffed and dapperly dressed Superintendent of Roslyn School District. Under Frank’s watch the high school became one of the best in the country with many of its students gaining acceptance to Ivy League institutions. Frank is thoughtful and deliberate in his position. He knows his teacher’s names and what subjects they teach. He remembers his student’s names well after they’ve moved on into adulthood. He can even recollect stories they wrote for his English class when he served as a teacher 10 to 15 years earlier. Serving as Frank’s right hand is Assistant Superintendent Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney), a workhouse of a woman who’s often seen burning the midnight oil in the district’s office.
It’s Frank’s thoughtfulness and encouragement that proves to be his undoing when he prods Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan of “Blockers”), a student journalist who’s writing a self-ascribed “puff piece” on the high school’s gaudy skywalk construction project, to dig deeper. He tells her, “It’s only a puff piece if you let it be a puff piece.” She does what she’s told and uncovers what amounts to $11.2 million in fraud committed by Frank and Pam. Rachel brings the story to her editor, Nick Fleischman (Alex Wolff from the new “Jumanji” flicks and “Hereditary”). Alex wants to sit on the story as Frank is writing him a college recommendation letter, but ultimately the facts and the crimes being committed prove too much to be ignored. The story is published.
Jackman does some of the best work of his career as Frank. I might’ve preferred his performances in Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige” or his final go around as Wolverine in James Mangold’s “Logan,” but this ranks right up there. He’s almost unrecognizable in the part and pulls heretofore unseen tricks from his hat. Janney excels in this sort of role and is quite ridiculous with her thick Long Island accent and bleached bottle blonde hair. She’s just so matter of fact playing this deeply flawed character much like she was in her Oscar-winning turn in “I, Tonya.” It’s a real pleasure to watch these two actors simply share a pastrami on rye in character.
I enjoyed Viswanathan’s performance as Rachel, but was somewhat disheartened to read that she’s an amalgamation of a character. According to screenwriter Mike Makowsky (My wife’s cousin’s name! Only the surname ends in an “i.” Makowsky was actually a middle schooler at Roslyn Schools when the scandal broke.), Rachel is, “a part composite, part invention meant to be an audience surrogate who is finding out information with us.” Some of my favorite moments of the movie consist of Rachel and her unemployed father, David (Hari Dhillon, bringing great warmth in a limited appearance), making phone calls, doing research and getting to the truth at the heart of the matter.
Ray Romano is also on hand playing School Board President Big Bob Spicer. It’s been a real joy in these past few years to see Romano develop as a dramatic actor in films such as “The Big Sick” and “The Irishman.” He brings the same quality he brought to those projects here. Rafael Casal is another standout as Frank’s former student, Kyle Contreras – the role is a complete 180 from Casal’s turn in the underseen and underrated “Blindspotting” from 2018, which he also co-wrote.
“Bad Education” is very much a movie of this particular time. It’s cathartic to see people in positions of power who’ve done wrong be held accountable and punished for their actions. It’s also an affirmation on the importance of student journalism (even though some of it’s fudged for the film) and the institution of journalism as a whole.