MOVIE "Bad Education"
WHEN|WHERE Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO
WHAT IT’S ABOUT Just as Roslyn was patting itself on the back for its increasingly prestigious school district, news broke that something within its halls was rotten. Throughout 2004, stunned parents learned of a larceny scheme that reached all the way up to Frank Tassone, the superintendent who had turned the district into a powerhouse. In the end, he and fellow administrator Pam Gluckin would go to prison for their part in stealing an alleged $11.2 million from the school system. “Bad Education,” starring Hugh Jackman as the charismatic Tassone and Allison Janney as Gluckin, is a tragicomic version of events written by Mike Makowsky, who was attending Roslyn’s middle school when they unfolded. The director is Cory Finley, of the critically acclaimed teen thriller “Thoroughbreds.”
MY SAY If you remember this scandal, or if you feel a little twinge of schadenfreude when any privileged community gets egg on its face, you’ll find much to savor in “Bad Education.” Though not the searing social critique it might have been, it’s a smart, sharp drama set against a Venn diagram of wealth, education and corruption — all hot-button issues of the moment, especially in the wake of the Huffman-Loughlin college admissions scandal. For Long Islanders in particular, this is a must-watch.
“Bad Education” paints a picture of Tassone as a fascinating contradiction: A slick-talking, self-aggrandizing leader who is nevertheless devoted to his work and his students. The film opens with Tassone, introduced by school board president Bob Spicer (Ray Romano), basking in applause for boosting Roslyn’s college acceptance rates. But we also see Tassone dealing gently with Chad, an awkward kid with a reading problem, and his pushy mother. “Chad’s a smart kid with a bright future,” Tassone says, “and it’s our job to give him the runway.” It’s the perfect thing to say – and he seems to mean it.
Equally fascinating is Gluckin, the crass yin to his sophisticated yang. Chain-smoking and wisecracking — two Janney specialties — Gluckin is the lovable office crank. As it turns out, Gluckin has been using school funds to support her upper-echelon lifestyle, including her home renovation. When her whining daughter learns of mom’s crimes, Gluckin turns it around on her: “You didn’t want state school,” she explains. “You wanted private school.”
It’s a student reporter, Rachel — a fictional character inspired by the real Rebekah Rombom, and played by Geraldine Viswanathan — who stumbles upon the budget discrepancies that point to Tassone. The closer Rachel gets to the truth, the more Tassone is forced to show his feral side. Jackman delivers a highly controlled performance as a man trying desperately to juggle the many lives he’s been keeping separate. (Rafael Casal, of “Blindspotting,” plays Tassone’s secret lover in Las Vegas.) In some ways, Tassone isn’t too far removed from Gary Hart, the sleazy-sincere politician Jackman played in 2018’s “The Front Runner.”
“Bad Education” falls slightly short in one respect: If there’s a larger point to this story of greed and duplicity, it isn’t clearly stated. Still, “Bad Education” is a highly entertaining crime drama that ends on an outrageously galling note: Tassone, now out of prison, is still entitled to his pension of more than $173,000 per year.
BOTTOM LINE A sharp and compelling drama anchored by Jackman in a rare anti-hero role.