HBO’s Hugh Jackman film Bad Education is based on a true story about a Long Island superintendent named Frank Tassone. The less one knows about the true story behind the film, however, the better Bad Education will be, because Jackman does such a marvelous job in the film misdirecting every other character except the one, Rachel Bhargava (a student journalist played by Geraldine Viswanathan), who blows up the embezzlement scandal at the center of the movie.
In the early 2000s, Tassone was the superintendent in Roslyn, NY, an upscale town that — thanks to Tassone — manages to rank as the fourth-best public school in the nation. There’s more than good SAT scores and high college entrance rates to that accomplishment, though. It also means higher home values, which puts Tassone in good standing with the town, including trustee and supporter Bob Spicer (Ray Romano). However, being as good at his job as he is, Tassone begins to believe that he deserves more than a superintendent’s salary.
What’s remarkable about this story, is that it’s not a simple case of embezzlement. There are layers of corruption here, and Frank Tassone is able to hide his corruption behind some more obvious targets. However, he is also able to protect those targets as the dominos start to fall. Chief among them is Pam Gluckin, an administrator and accomplice played brilliantly by Allison Janney. She’s the fall gal, but to protect himself, Tassone has to protect Gluckin while also throwing her under the bus, an impressive high-wire act.
Jackman is as good here as he’s been since Prisoners, combining the muted charms of his Gary Hart in The Frontrunner with the impressive salesmanship of his P.T. Barnum. Tassone is a remarkable superintendent, great with kids, great with parents, and knows the political terrain, which initially inoculates him when the shit hits the fan. No one wants to believe the worst of Tassone, and how could you? Such a thoughtful man and hard worker, and so respectful of the women who throw themselves at him! And when Tassone is caught with his hand in the cookie jar? Whose fault is that? Tassone’s or those who looked the other way when he reached for an OREO?
The screenplay comes from Mike Makowsky, a former student at Rosyln High School who was there when the scandal broke open. Cory Finley (Thoroughbreds) has a deft touch behind the camera, pulling all of the energy out of Jackman while leaving behind his showmanship. Finley — with a strong assist from Janney — also does something else remarkable here by turning a true story into a razor-sharp satire with a dark sense of humor. It’s not exactly the perfect movie for these times, but it is an entertaining and enjoyable way to spend an hour and a half.