Truth trumps fiction once again in Bad Education, Cory Finley’s whipsmart and wickedly fascinating take on a 2002 scandal about trusted educators who embezzled more than $11 million from the public-school system in Long Island, New York. A stellar Hugh Jackman, like you’ve never seen him (or Wolverine) before, tackles the complex role of Long Island school superintendent Frank Tassone, a hero in the posh district for making Roslyn High fourth in the country by getting top seniors into Ivy League colleges, which brings cheers from parents and students — he knows all their names — and ups the real-estate value of the neighborhood. Everybody wins.
Maybe that’s why no one notices right away that Tassone and his assistant superintendent for business, Pam Gluckin (the ever-amazing Allison Janney), have their hands in the kitty. The exception is Rachel (a terrific Geraldine Viswanathan of Blockers), a sophomore used to writing puff pieces for the school paper. It’s Tassone, of all people, who urges Rachel to act like a real journalist and ask hard questions. That’s when Rachel discovers discrepancies in the competing bids to build a $7.2 million skywalk for Roslyn High. Where do you get that kind of dough when the school ceilings are leaking? It’s just the tip of the iceberg for a bigger fraud being perpetrated on taxpayers.
Working from a devilishly clever and detailed script by Mike Makowsky (I Think We’re Alone Now), who was himself a student at Roslyn Middle School at the time, Finley dodges the banal trap of pointing fingers to investigate how venality happens, especially to good guys. And that’s what Tassone and Gluckin once were, back in their day as underpaid servants of the public trust who had to stand by and watch as the fat cats — such as the school board president (a dynamite Ray Romano) — raked in salaries that hit the million mark. If you’re Tassone, you start by charging a quick pizza to the school credit card before you move on to European vacation trips on the Concord, paying off your mortgage, and dressing in designer duds that edge you out of the classroom and into the corridors of power. Without ever condoning criminality, Finley astutely traces its roots. In his striking 2017 debut film Thoroughbreds, Finley showed how quickly two teen girls could go from fantasizing about murder to the real thing.
All credit to Jackman for digging deep into the human side of Tassone, a closeted gay who keeps a photo of his late, alleged wife on his desk to discourage amorous mothers. A furtive lifestyle came early to Tassone who lives in Manhattan, away from prying eyes, with his age-appropriate life partner (Stephen Spinella) while supporting a former student (Blindspotting’s Rafael Casal) he hooked up with during a school convention in Vegas. The younger man, an exotic dancer-turned-bartender, flatters Tassone’s youthful sense of himself, which he maintains with facelifts and Botox treatments paid for by the same creative book-keeping that Gluckin uses to remodel her houses and keep family members on the payroll.
As it happens, it’s Gluckin who gets nailed first and Tassone who throws her under the bus, spinning the facts to clear himself and to buy her silence by making sure she keeps her pension even after she’s canned. His argument to the board is that a scandal of this magnitude would kill the school’s hard-won prestige and end its days as a cash cow for the entire community. The cover-up is a hustle on par with P.T. Barnum, the famed promoter who Jackman played in The Greatest Showman. But the board members go along with it, accomplices in their own defeat.
Ironically, it’s Rachel’s expose in the school paper that brings down Tassone’s house of cards. And Finley tracks the ruination without hype or mealy-mouthed moralizing. Jackman could have parodied Tassone as a pathetic sadsack, Instead he lets us see a man who truly dedicated himself to his school and the students he once taught literature from Shakespeare to Salinger. Tassone’s tragic flaw is hubris, the feeling that he could talk his way out of anything.
Not this time. You can Google what happened to Tassone after his conviction. No spoilers needed since Jackman lets you see the loss and devastation in his every look and gesture. It’s a career-best performance from a movie star with a genuine actor’s depth and range. Bad Education is going directly to HBO; thankfully, Academy gurus have just changed their rules in regards to VOD/straight-to-streaming films originally intended for theatrical release being eligible to compete*. Jackman could get nominated for an Oscar here — but whether he does or not, the audience is still rewarded with a steadily riveting provocation that jabs at the culture of money that makes us all complicit.
*This review was been modified to reflect the Academy’s change in rules re: eligibility.