In 2002, the Roslyn School District in New York was trying to get to the top of the mountain. With plenty of money in the budget, plans for a sky bridge to embellish the campus and a respected superintendent in charge, their plans to become the No. 1 ranked district in the country were coming to fruition. That is, until a big fraud was uncovered and everything came crashing down. This real life situation is the plot for HBO’s crime drama “Bad Education,” starring Hugh Jackman and written by a former student of Roslyn District, Mike Makowsky.
In his second movie, “Thoroughbreds” helmer Cory Finley handles the pace with laser precision. He takes his time painting the picture, leaving a trail of details that will soon become part of a larger scheme. As secrets start coming to light, there’s tension in the air signaling that the storm is far from over. And even though you have a sense of where everything is going, the film is absolutely riveting, and Mike Makowsky’s construction of its main character is the driving force behind it.
Throughout the years, Hugh Jackman has easily managed to escape from the Wolverine character to display his charm in numerous roles. In “Bad Education,” he starts just like that: a charming superintendent named Frank Tassone. He’s a beloved figure, a sharp-dressed man fully dedicated to the education system that has been key in Roslyn District’s growth. He’s a hero, but as the film progresses, you start to notice a hunger for recognition… and then, the character develops into something very interesting. Jackman is right there to make us question his every intention, exploding in the right moment and gifting us with one of his best, most humane performances. It’s a shame this is a TV movie because Jackman could’ve been a strong contender in the Best Action race (he still has the Emmys though).
Surrounding Frank, we have Allison Janney (“I, Tonya”) playing Pam Gluckin, a greedy business administrator for the school whose son inadvertently sets the disaster in motion; Ray Romano (“The Irishman”) as Bob Spicer, the board president that has his hopes on Frank’s talents; and most importantly, Geraldine Viswanathan (“Blockers”) as Rachel, a brave journalist student that is writing a seemingly harmless story for the high school newspaper. Following the superintendent’s advice, Rachel tries to go the extra mile with her project, eventually running into evidence of dirty business happening in the school. Her arc is quite predictable, but Viswanathan’s confidence creates some effective moments; you will cheer for her.
The movie never tries to protect or justify Frank’s actions, but while exposing his dealings, it offers some interesting ideas about the education system and how it undervalues teachers’ importance in society. Makowsky’s screenplay isn’t just trying to retell an embezzlement scenario, but to find the motivations behind the culprits. His own experience as a student in Roslyn is right there to guide us and thoroughly understand the role of Frank’s personality in the matter. After all, he knew the man.
A film about fraud, money and school administration could have been dull, but the pace, satire tone, character depth and a commanding Hugh Jackman performance makes “Bad Education” a thrilling tale about the need for love, belonging and recognition, as well as the importance of braveness and integrity when faced with uncertainty.
“Bad Education” is now streaming on HBO.
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